Regret is a sad emotion people feel when an opportunity has been missed or if they have caused an unfortunate situation for themselves. Sad emotions cause thinking to become slow and revolve around the origin of the negative experience. This happens instinctively to force people’s focus onto the issues involved, so they’re more likely to identify what caused the emotional pain and avoid it in the future.1
Sadness is created by a perception of loss.2 It also relates to things that have happened. Sadness is past orientated and if people fear for a loss that has not yet happened, the appropriate word for the emotion is anxiety.3 Similarly, regret relates to perceived failures that have led to loss, but, specifically, when the loss could have been prevented. If actions or decisions people have taken lead to an outcome where they lose a possession of value, they would naturally feel regret.
The word “possession” is used here to describe talents, positive feelings, jobs, and people – not just simple physical items. The perception of any personal mistake that prevented any positive situation from happening can cause regret. As mistakes could lead to hopes being frustrated or destroyed, regret may be accompanied by frustration and despair. In this way, besides experiencing an unfortunate situation, people also become negatively affected, and these emotions are intensified by the perception that the whole scenario could have been prevented.
Although regret can be created in an instant, it can linger for years. If people feel that they have missed an opportunity with someone who is significant to them, they may always regret missing that opportunity. People may not be able to describe why they feel so disappointed and find it difficult to come to terms with a deep sense of longing that they cannot fully understand. Regret can reach deep into the heart and make people feel incredibly desperate with the recognition of lost hopes. Since regret includes things that didn’t happen because of action or inaction, loss of potential relationships are encompassed within its scope.
Sometimes regret can be a scary emotion because people do not know why they feel such strong sadness (which could be subconscious despair). People might feel as if they have done something deeply wrong, but usually without any sense of guilt. For when guilt is present with a mistake that’s been made, the more appropriate emotion is remorse.
Effects of regret can range from sad mild disappointment to gut-wrenching despair depending on how significant the mistake was. The perception of value attached to the loss may be accurate or inaccurate.
Frequently, as if they have perceived something subconsciously, people cannot fully explain why they feel so deeply about an issue. They have a notion that something means a lot to them in some unknown way, yet the only sign they have is the strong feelings that stem from deep within. Regret can signal how significant a possession is through subconsciously created feelings. People can become unsettled by this, for they feel they should reconsider their actions, but the only evidence they have to support such reasoning is deep feelings.
As a result, people often question their emotions when feeling regret: “Do I trust my subconscious perceptions to value such things for me?”; “Is that reasonable?”; “Do I trust my feelings or not?” The whole process can seem disturbingly unscientific.
Sometimes there will be no possible future opportunity or reunion. People will have to make the same decision about how much a possession really meant to them, based on their feelings of loss, but knowing they will never have an opportunity to correct it. This is why regret is highly associated with unresolved sadness and despair.
As they will be used to inform future similar situations, valuations are important. Reflective judgements will create conscious and unconscious biassing guides for future decisions. Once a valuation is believed, it will create psychological (and subsequently behavioural) dispositions that influence both thought and instinctual propensities. The depth to which people feel regret can be considered as the depth of subconscious recognition they’re experiencing. If people do not feel regret for their mistakes, they have not learnt from experience, so they are doomed to repeat them.
In some cases, regret can be accompanied by a hope that another chance will come along, so the damage once created can be somewhat repaired. But often no realistic hope may still exist, and people may fear accepting the despair. The character of regret is sorrowful mourning that brings about sadness and despair. The effects are very sobering and have a tendency to cause people to reflect on the amount of time they have in life.
Old French. Regreter = long after, lament someone’s death, to remember with distress or longing.
1. To feel sad or disappointed that something has not happened.
2. To feel sad or guilty that something bad has happened.
3. To feel sad that an opportunity has been missed.