Indecision, regret and guilt

Two self-observations that seem slightly contradictory to me:

  1. I often struggle making decisions – big and small – and can agonise for a long time, in fear of making the “wrong decision.”
  2. I basically never experience regret: if I look back on my life and try to think of a decision I really wish I’d made differently, I struggle to come up with examples.

This seems kind of strange. If I know, based on past experience, I’m very unlikely to end up regretting whatever decision I make, it doesn’t make much sense for me to stress so much over deciding. The main reason I should be worried about making the “wrong decision”, surely, is that I might later regret it? I think there are a few possible explanations for what’s going on here:

  • On some rational level, I know that I’m unlikely to regret my decision either way, but yet for some reason my gut isn’t convinced, can’t learn from my experience, and is still terrified every time it has the chance to get something wrong;
  • The reason I never regret things is that I actually just make really good decisions, in virtue of the fact I spend so damn long on each one;
  • The reason I never regret things is that I’m really good at rationalising my past decisions, and telling myself a plausible story on which it was a good decision (even if in fact it wasn’t in any objective sense.) The fact I spend so long agonising over decisions means I’m even more prone to do this – because my brain has plenty of time and incentive to justify the decision as a good one.

I think the first explanation is playing some role – often, the hardest decisions are difficult precisely because there’s not much between the options, making it unlikely I’ll experience extreme regret later. I know this rationally, and so in some sense know I’m unlikely to experience regret, but on a gut level I’m still sort of terrified of making the wrong decision.

The second would be a nicer, more charitable explanation than the third. But it seems unlikely: unlikely that the reason I never experience regret is that all of my decisions are perfect, that I never make any mistakes. Instead, I think the third explanation is actually more likely to describe what’s going on: I don’t experience much regret because I’m very good at focusing on the positive aspects of decisions once I’ve made them, and telling myself a story whereby it was the right decision. There’s a kind of confirmation bias here. I’m thinking about all of the reasons why the decision I made was a good one, and hardly considering why it might have been a mistake or some alternative could have been better.

I’ve always felt this tendency to not experience regret was a good thing, adaptive: what’s the point in dwelling on past decisions, when you can’t change them? But I’m starting to question this a bit more. One obvious benefit of experiencing regret is that, though it can’t change the past, it might highlight specific mistakes which I can learn from in future. And so by not allowing myself to recognise that I might have made a mistake, I might be missing out on opportunities to learn from mistakes.

Beyond this, I worry that not experiencing regret might stem from, and perhaps perpetuate, my fear of making mistakes. Perhaps I don’t allow myself to experience regret because in my mind, to admit having made a mistake would mean something really awful. I think I’m catastrophising here – my brain seems to think that if I make a bad decision this will somehow mean something awful or that I’m a terrible person. And this is why I can find it so difficult to make decisions. If instead I could sometimes admit mistakes to myself, even acknowledge that I might have made the wrong decision – without concluding that I’m somehow a terrible person as a result – it might reduce the fear, and so help with my indecisiveness. I wonder whether this ability to experience regret, not seeing it as something to be afraid of, might actually be really important for good decision-making.

Another emotion which seems to play a similar role to regret – in helping us recognise mistakes – is guilt. (It seems like the difference between regret and guilt is something to do with whether my mistake just affects me – in which case what I feel is better described as regret – or whether it has negative consequences for others, too – in which case I feel guilty.) And similarly, I have a lot of difficulty acknowledging that I feel guilt – perhaps even more so than with regret – because to do so feels like it would mean admitting I am a bad person. Until fairly recently, I would have also told you that I didn’t really experience guilt either. But interestingly, I’ve started to realise that on some level I was feeling a lot of guilt about all kinds of things in my life – and somehow failing to acknowledge the emotion, because doing so felt far too scary. Beginning to allow myself to feel guilt without it necessarily meaning I’m an awful person feels important and useful.

 

For years I told myself that I just didn’t feel these emotions, and that was good, because they weren’t useful. But it seems now like I was somehow “not allowing” myself to feel regret and guilt, because I was afraid of what doing so might mean – and that blocking these emotions might have been doing me damage. Generally, it seems useful to notice telling yourself or others, “I don’t really experience emotion y” – and perhaps question whether you might actually be afraid to experience it for some reason.

 

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