Recently, I caught up on Kangana Ranaut’s movie, Panga, where a former captain of India’s National Kabaddi Team returns to the turf after seven years. Plot-wise, it is quite similar to the biopic of Mary Kom played by Priyanka Chopra Jonas. Both the films amongst many other works of literary fiction build on the biggest regret most people have – not realising their ideal self.
Why make it specific? A regret is a regret is a regret, right?
Wrong! Not all regrets are equal and that’s what we’ll discuss here.
I would not engage in the review and comparison of the two films. However, I would indulge you in the 2018 study by Thomas Gilovich and Shai Davidai, titled as The Ideal Road Not Taken. It found that our most enduring regrets are things we failed to act upon – our regrettable inactions towards our most ideal selves.
Our Three Kinds of Self
According to the Self-discrepancy Theory, we have three self-states:
- Actual self: Who I currently am – my reality and the attributes I possess
- Ideal self: Who I could be – my dreams, hopes and aspirations
- Ought self: Who I should be – my duties, obligations and responsibilities
The discrepancy between these three self-states leads to different kinds of discomfort (read: regrets). For example: I could have been a star ballet dancer. Or, I should have exercised more often.
Ought-self Regret vs. Ideal-self Regret
Across age and demographics, people regret failing to fulfil their ideal self (72%) more than they regret to fulfil their ought self (28%), says the study.
This is because ought-self regrets are more about actions; they are more concrete and come with guidelines. Ideal-self regrets are more general, ambiguous and lack guideposts.
Example of ideal-self regret: I could have been a better parent. There is no benchmark of parenthood and there’s always room to do more.
A similar case of ought-self regret: I should have attended my son’s graduation ceremony. Here, there is a clear setting and a defined action. So, it’s easy to make up for it (throw a party later on) and file it away as resolved or less bothersome with time.
Read more on Parenting at Love. Sunshine. Cheer.
Childhood Fears: The Part Parents Play in Instilling Them
When asked to list their single biggest regret in life, 76 percent of the respondents mentioned not realising their dreams, hopes and aspirations (their ideal self). This regret stems from a failure to take certain actions that could have led you closer to who you could have been. Lack of clarity, context and a remote possibility of realising our ideal self makes the associated regret more bothersome and a frequent visitor in our day-to-day life.
A palliative nurse, Bronnie Ware’s anecdotal book, The Regrets of the Dying, backs up the study’s findings.
Regrettable Action vs. Regrettable Inaction
While regrettable action and regrettable inaction are both common, the study finds that inactions are far more prevalent and enduring. Inactions are like a slow burn whose pain compounds over time. That’s because we experience the regret of that inaction only later down the road.
As elaborated in the previous examples, there are ways to undo (read: make amends and minimise future harm) the consequences of an action done wrong. However, there is no way to turn the clock back and redeem yourself of inaction. For example: The window of opportunity to learn ballet and make it as a big star is now closed. I can learn ballet, but won’t find success as I would have had I pursued it more passionately when I was still young.
But what about the window of opportunity that’s always open? Are regrets around that too?
The Bitches Called Opportunity & Optimism
Ideal-self state is all about optimism and opportunity. It’s about counterfactual thinking.
A 2005 study by Neal Roese and Amy Summerville points that regret persists in precisely those situations in which opportunity for positive action remains high. For example: ‘You can always go back to school’ is an open window of opportunity. But, as you continue not to act on this information, your regret becomes more and more pronounced.
Another interesting finding is that people regret not pursuing their hobby even if that hobby no longer holds their interest. It’s amazing to imagine myself performing the ballet for the who’s who of the century even though I don’t enjoy dancing much now.
We enjoy fantasising about the possibilities rather than taking a realistic stand on things. So, our regret evolves from “I should have been there for his graduation” to “We could have been running this business together and I could have been spending time with my grandkids.”
Regrets of inaction are imaginatively boundless. And, that is the dark side of being your ideal self! We dwell too much on the person we could have been and the life we could have been living which consumes the happiness of the person we currently are.
It is this see-saw of incompleteness and possibility around our inactions that keeps them festering for longer.
So, no matter what you do or choose not to do, you’ll be ending up with the regret of one kind or another. When you seize once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to perform with the biggest musician, you are missing your son’s graduation.
The Mirror of Erised (desire in reverse) in the Harry Potter series was a physical manifestation of regret and desire. It’s inscription read:
To this Dumbledore says, “It shows us nothing more or less than the deepest, most desperate desire of our hearts. However, this mirror will give us neither knowledge or truth. Men have wasted away before it, entranced by what they have seen, or been driven mad, not knowing if what it shows is real or even possible.”
This makes so much sense now. But, I ask if there’s a silver lining with regret and the study offers an answer.
Practical ‘Positive’ Application of Regret
So, Gilovich and Davidai urge caution with regrets. They suggest finding the right way to live depends on the weight we place our ought self and our ideal self.
Placing a premium on our ought self would mean thinking twice before taking a leap to minimise regrets. However, this wouldn’t do much favour to an adventurous soul. That person would be happier seizing the day first and thinking later, or never looking back at all!
Lingering regrets are also a great company reminding us of our alternate reality. Why take on the delusional “no regrets” bravado? Why not draw up the courage to finally act? If posed with a choice between action and inaction, act. You might regret that action, but it will be far less painful than not doing it in the first place. That’s how you live in the now – by just doing it! (yeah, you go Nike!)
However, sometimes we are paralysed by the social view of our selves. As the leading characters (sportswomen) in the two films mentioned previously sweep aside these views and go on to actualise their ideal self, they realise what Gilovich also notes in the study:
“People are more charitable than we think and also don’t notice us nearly as much as we think.”
“If that’s what holding you back – the fear of what other people will think and notice – then think a little more about just doing it.”
Over to you
Acting upon revisiting regrets can acquaint you with their nature and your response towards them. Your regrets can propel you forward so that mistakes are not repeated and you’re closer to your ideal self. So, all hail Nike