The Upside of Regret

Acknowledging missteps and learning from them can bring greater meaning to your life.

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On the surface at least, Julius Caesar and Elmo make an unlikely pair. One was a Roman statesman, general, and historian who was immortalized in a Shakespeare play and who lived more than 2,000 years ago. The other is a slightly manic Muppet with mangy red fur and an orange nose, whose exact citizenship is unclear but whose last forwarding address was Sesame Street.

Yet both of these figures are expert practitioners of the same rhetorical maneuver: illeism, a fancy word for talking about oneself in the third person. When Julius Caesar describes his Gallic Wars exploits in his book Commentarii de Bello Gallico, he never uses I or other first-person pronouns. Instead, he crafts sentences like “Caesar learned through spies that the mountain was in possession of his own men.” Likewise, when Elmo explains his commitment to the life of the mind, he, too, disdains the first person. He favors constructions like “Elmo loves to learn!”

Some people find illeism annoying. But talking about ourselves in the third person is one variety of what social psychologists call self-distancing.

When we’re beset by negative emotions, including regret, one response is to immerse ourselves in them, to face the negativity by getting up close and personal. But immersion can catch us in an undertow of rumination. A better, more effective, and longer-lasting approach is to move in the opposite direction — not to plunge in, but to zoom out and gaze upon our situation as a detached observer, much as a movie director pulls back the camera.

Self-distancing helps you analyze and strategize — to examine the regret dispassionately without shame or rancor and to extract from it a lesson that can guide your future behavior.

Self-distancing changes your role from scuba diver to oceanographer, from swimming in the murky depths of regret to piloting above the water to examine its shape and shoreline. “People who self-distance focus less on recounting their experiences and more on reconstruing them in ways that provide insight and closure,” explain Ethan Kross of the University of Michigan and Özlem Ayduk of the University of California, Berkeley, two prominent scholars of the subject. Shifting from the immersive act of recounting to the more distanced act of reconstruing regulates our emotions and redirects behavior. As a result, self-distancing strengthens thinking, enhances problem-solving skills, deepens wisdom, and even reduces the elevated blood pressure that often accompanies stressful situations.

We can create distance from our regrets in three ways. First, we can distance through space. The classic move is known, unsurprisingly, as the “fly‑on‑the-wall technique.” Rather than examine your regret from your own perspective — “I really screwed up by letting my close friendship with Jen come apart and then doing nothing to fix it” — view the scene from the perspective of a neutral observer: “I watched a person let an important friendship drift. But all of us make mistakes, and she can redeem this one by reaching out to meaningful connections, including Jen, more regularly and more often.”

You may have noticed that you’re often better at solving other people’s problems than your own. Because you’re less enmeshed in others’ details than they are, you’re able to see the full picture in ways they cannot. In fact, Kross and Igor Grossmann of Canada’s University of Waterloo have shown that when people step back and assess their own situation the way they’d evaluate other people’s situations, they close this perceptual gap. They reason as effectively about their own problems as they do about others’ problems.

Equally important, the fly‑on‑the-wall technique helps us withstand and learn from criticism — it makes it easier not to take it personally — which is essential in transforming regrets into instruments for improvement. This sort of distancing can be physical as well as mental. Going to a different location to analyze the regret or even literally leaning back, rather than forward, in one’s chair can make challenges seem less difficult and reduce anxiety in addressing them.

The second way to self-distance is through time. We can enlist the same capacity for time travel that gives birth to regret to analyze and strategize about learning from these regrets. For example, one study showed that prompting people to consider how they might feel about a negative situation in ten years reduced their stress and enhanced their problem-solving capabilities compared to contemplating what the situation would be like in a week.

Mentally visiting the future — and then examining the regret retrospectively — activates a similar type of detached, big-picture perspective as the fly‑on‑the-wall technique. It can make the problem seem smaller, more temporary, and easier to surmount.

Our previous patient, for instance, could envision how she’d react a decade from now, peering back on her regret. Does she feel bad about letting the friendship remain apart for 35 years? Or does she feel satisfied that she addressed her connection regrets — with Jen or with others? When we simulate looking at the problem retrospectively, from the binoculars of tomorrow rather than the magnifying glass of today, we’re more likely to replace self-justification with self-improvement.

The third method of self-distancing, as Julius Caesar and Elmo teach us, is through language. Kross, Ayduk, and others have carried out some fascinating research, concluding that “subtle shifts in the language people use to refer to themselves during introspection can influence their capacity to regulate how they think, feel, and behave under stress.” When we abandon the first person in talking to ourselves, the distance that creates can help us recast threats as challenges and replace distress with meaning. For example, borrowing a page from Caesar, Grossmann and several colleagues found that getting people to write about their challenges using third-person pronouns like she, him, and they rather than first-person pronouns like I, me, and my increased their intellectual humility and sharpened the way they reasoned through difficulties.

And Elmo might be wiser than he looks. Addressing yourself by your name has similar effects. For example, another Kross-led project found that during the 2014 Ebola scare, people who were randomly assigned to use their own name, rather than I, in thinking about the disease were better able to generate fact-based reasons not to panic about the outbreak. Equally important, self-distancing through language is neither laborious nor time-consuming. According to one neuroimaging study, its effects can kick in within one second.

So, to gain the benefits of self-­distancing, try any of the following:

  • Imagine your best friend is confronting the same regret that you’re dealing with. What is the lesson that the regret teaches them? What would you tell them to do next? Be as specific as you can. Now follow your own advice.
  • Imagine that you are a neutral expert — a doctor of regret sciences — analyzing your regret in a clean, pristine ­examination room. What is your diagnosis? Explain in clinical terms what went wrong. Next, what is your prescription? Now write an email to yourself — using your first name and the pronoun you — outlining the small steps you need to learn from the regret.
  • If your regret involves your business or career, try a technique from the late Intel CEO Andy Grove, who reportedly would ask himself, “If I were replaced tomorrow, what would my successor do?”
  • Imagine it is ten years from now and you’re looking back with pride on how you responded to this regret. What did you do?

Looking backward can move us forward, but only if we do it right. The sequence of self-disclosure, self-­compassion, and self-distancing offers a simple yet systematic way to transform regret into a powerful force for stability, achievement, and purpose.

From The Power of Regret: How Looking Back Moves Us Forward by Daniel H. Pink, published by Riverhead Books, an imprint of the Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Daniel H. Pink.

Daniel H. Pink is the author of several books, including The New York Times bestsellers When, Drive, To Sell Is Human, and A Whole New Mind.

This article appears in the January/February 2023 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

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