Understanding the Emotions Surrounding Regrets

Dr. Sharon B. Jacobs shares her insight into the psychology of regret.

We asked people if they had ever said or done something to someone that they truly regretted. 

“All the time,” Maria Matos told us, expressing one type of response. Similarly, Nathan Hayward, the former government official, couldn’t point to a single episode, but noted, “If you asked someone who is still in the General Assembly, they could probably give you 25.”

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Others responded much as Michael Kalmbach did, when he said, “My biggest regret is the times I haven’t spoken out.”

The most specific admission of regret came from Debra Puglisi Sharp, who, despite working for years as a hospice nurse, has told friends who’ve lost someone that they need to move on. “Now,” she says, “I can see how insensitive that comment may be.” 

Psychologist Sharon B. Jacobs has seen in her practice numerous examples involving feelings of betrayal in relationships between parents and children, siblings, married couples, lovers and close friends. 

“How people deal with these situations can be very different,” Jacobs says, and the outcome can continue to haunt them. 

When facing serious interpersonal conflict, people tend to go into “fight or flight” response mode, she says. Some choose to fight, lashing out as they give in to overwhelming feelings of fury and pain. Others prefer flight and retreat into silence, perhaps because they fear rejection or have had negative experiences in previous conflicts.

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No matter what the response, wounded feelings from an unresolved conflict can fester for years, causing “stress, pain, depression and sadness,” and leading individuals back into therapy, she says. “It’s like unfinished business.” 

Going into fight-or-flight mode is not the only way to deal with these situations, Jacobs says.

For those who tend to fight, she recommends taking a deep breath, giving yourself some time to think, and realize you can go back later to communicate more appropriately. “Don’t react in the moment, when emotions are so strong,” she says.

For those accustomed to flight, Jacobs says to take some time to build up your courage before confronting the person who has upset you. If necessary, write down the points you want to cover, using I statements, expressing your feelings and concerns, rather than you statements that criticize the other person’s words or behavior. “It doesn’t have to be done immediately,” she says, “but you have to find a resolution.”

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