When We Fixate On Past Regrets


There’s a really interesting read on Psychology.com about how we look back on our past choices, regret, and our tendency to bargain with ourselves.

Often we become fixated on our past actions, particularly if we feel as though we didn’t make the right choice. We replay the circumstances over and over again and try to rethink the course of action we took. When we think of other options we we could have considered or think about another path we could have taken, we engage in a process called “retroactive bargaining.” It’s time consuming, it can be a waste of energy, and yet we all do it—we all bargain with our pasts when we are unhappy with it.

It can be as simple as “I wish I had said something smarter or funnier” or “I wish I had broken up with him/her” or “Maybe if I had stood up for so-and-so way back when, things would have been different…” We become immersed in a potential outcome with which we are more happy. But of course, it’s not real. That’s not who we are. And that’s not the path we took. While the bargaining can be relieving in it’s own way, there’s no real connection to reality and therefore can play no role in actually improving ourselves as people. And as Suzanne Lachmann, Psy. D., at Psych writes, context plays a huge role in how we perceive our past:

Ultimately, instead of engaging in retroactive bargaining, work on forgiving yourself for the decisions and actions in your past that you wish you could have changed. Yes, hindsight can illuminate how differently you could have handled something. But what gets lost, is context. As you engage in retroactive bargaining, you are doing it with all the knowledge you have now without taking into account what you knew and who you were at the time. There were reasons and forces and more factors than you could possibly have been aware of that compelled your choices and the outcome.

While it may be difficult to take your mind off of a painful decision you regret, there’s no better way to overcome it than by simply accepting it with the goal to become the person who makes better (and now more informed) decisions.