“Regret is based on a GIANT assumption; that if something in the past had been different, then things would have been better.”
“people who dwell on their past with regret or bitterness are more likely to fall ill in the future”
This study hit the news this week; and I was asked to comment, as a psychologist, on Nick Ferrari’s LBC radio programme. You can listen to the clip here: Voula interviewed on LBC by Nick Ferrari 28th March 2012
Regret and remorse are very similar, though remorse has a greater intensity of emotion, involving anguish or guilt and self-reproach or repentance. Remorse comes from the Latin ‘remordere’ meaning: to bite again’ – remorse is a gnawing feeling of guilt over a past wrong.
The Granada study adds to the growing body of research that demonstrates the impact of remorse suffered over past events: poorer health, longer recovery time after surgery, earlier death. And yet, what actually happened in the past is less important than the perception of what happened. You can’t change events of the past, but you can change your attitude to it in a number of ways: shifting the context, seeing a wider perspective, focusing on more positive elements.
One of the most common sources of regret and remorse is the anguish of parents who worry that they have not been good enough: was I kind enough, loving enough? Such worries can be a source of great distress. Who does not empathise with Kate and Gerry McCann, icons of parental regret and pain, for whom the worst has happened?
Career and educational disappointments are another common source of regret. In my professional work, the two recurring themes I hear are: I wish I’d had more children; and I wish I’d had more education.
Reflecting and regretting are features of growing older: at fifty plus, with most of one’s life in the past, the impulse to review past successes and failures, joys and griefs, can be a source of happiness, unless remorse becomes the focus of attention, and then it creates misery and pain.
In his book, Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes reflects, through his characters, on regrets of the past, and the anxious rumination on actions taken and consequences realized. Barnes’ book received mixed reviews, from a yawn of boredom to glowing tributes. It’s my guess that the yawns came from younger readers, not yet primed to look back and wonder if… And the glowing tributes of course, from older people, with its resonant themes.
Remorse and regret are recurring themes in my novels. In Honor’s Shadow, Honor is regretful of actions taken many years earlier, and that come back to haunt her. In Honors Ghost, Honor discovers an intricate story of deep remorse and unforgiveness, hidden way back in the generations of her family.
On the LBC radio programme, Nick Ferrari asked me this: if remorse and regret are so damaging to health, what can be done? My answer: the antidote is gratitude and appreciation for the good things of the past, to rebalance the focus on painful events.
In hindsight, I would add: forgiveness – in particular, the hardest forgiveness of all: to forgive yourself for mistakes and transgressions, real and imagined.
For most of us, over a lifetime, the good you have done, the kindness you have shown, the sacrifices made and the love given and received, far outweigh the moments and episodes when you may have been selfish, careless or ruthless.