Full of Regret? Study Shows Best Practical Use for Past Pain
How to deal with shame and regret

New research indicates that most people have regretful thoughts multiple times per week which usually cause fruitless suffering, yet people can use regret to ‘self-actualize’, according to Professor in Clemson University’s psychology department Robin Kowalski.

According to the study, people can benefit from regret because it helps them conceptualize and even realize their “ideal self”.

“Following [their own] advice helped participants overcome regret,” Kowalski said.

Adding: “When participants followed their advice in the present, they were much more likely to say that their younger selves would be proud of the person they are now.”

Kowalski also found that almost half of participants said the advice they would offer their younger selves influenced their description of their future selves, whether that was “successful and financially stable” or “old and decrepit.”

Areas People Offer Advice to Their Younger Self

Kowalski said the top three areas clearly are education, self-worth and relationships.

Advice tied to education often was individuals urging themselves to return to or finish school and many participants offered a timeline, such as “get master’s while in your 20s” or “finish college in four years.”

Advice related to self-worth, such as “be yourself” or “think through all options before making a decision,” tended to be more inspirational and corrective than the more temporal advice about education.

Kowalski said all of this advice, particularly related to relationships, can lead to corrective behavior.

“My favorite piece of advice in the whole paper came from a guy who said ‘Do. Not. Marry. Her.,'” Kowalski says.

“That’s valuable for the person that he is now because he can reflect and have a better idea of what he’s looking for in an ideal mate, plus he can offer advice to others.”

Kowalski’s findings are consistent with research on the “reminiscence bump,” which is the tendency for older adults to have increased recollection for events that occurred during their adolescence and early adulthood.

Most of the advice participants offered to themselves was tied to a pivotal event that had occurred between the ages of 10 and 30.

“These are critical years; people go through high school and college, get married, have kids and start their careers,” Kowalski said.

“On the one hand you can say, ‘Duh, of course these are important years,’ but when we separated positive pivotal events and negative pivotal events, almost all of them fell into that time period.

“It’s interesting to find clear evidence to support the reminiscence bump.”

Surprising Research Factors

Kowalski said the honesty and poignancy of some of the responses were surprising.

Many had to do with addiction, and one participant offered advice to his younger self that would have prevented a car accident that killed his uncle.

Kowalski said she’s only preoccupied with these “dark side” subjects because it helps her appreciate the light.

“There’s a real emotional pull to this topic and it’s what drew me to it in the first place,” Kowalski said.

“These are two of my favorite studies I’ve ever done because everyone can relate to it and everyone has asked themselves this question.”

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