Life is full of choices. When things don’t go as we plan or hoped, we feel regret. It is a common and universal experience. At the risk of stating the obvious, regret is considered a negative emotion. But unlike other negative emotions, such as sadness, regret can be more difficult to manage because it involves self-blame–regret is about lost opportunities and possible selves. The regret can be painful and enduring. Online sites like SecretRegrets.com can help because, as we’ve discussed in previous posts, the human brain doesn’t discriminate against virtual environments when it comes to social connection.
Research shows that the depth of our regret is often related to our ability to achieve closure (Beike, Markman, & Karadogan, 2008). We can get closure by finding a ‘second change’-having future opportunities to make a new choice. For events that cannot be changed and where the circumstances are not repeatable, closure is harder to get. Psychological closure happens when we can get some distance or a new perspective-when we can shed past possible selves and goals and move forward.
Recent research by Morrison & Roese (2011) out of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management categorized the regrets of a typical American. They divided the responses about regret into 12 domains, with top six being, not surprisingly, romance, family, education, career, finance, and parenting. That’s all very well and good, but what can we DO when we experience regret? How can we move beyond it?
One solution is online. Kevin Hansen, my friend and one of my co-panelists at SxSW, started a site called SecretRegrets.com. To his surprise, the site struck a chord and thousands of people anonymously post their deepest regrets and respond to one another. The site is touching because of the heartfelt revelations and the supportive community it has formed, but it is humbling because so many people talk about how cathartic and transformative the experience has been for them. It has become such a phenomenon that Kevin has published a book (Secret Regrets: What if You Had a Second Chance”) with highlights from the blog postings and appeared on Dr. Phil (Friday, April 1, 2011).
Self-disclosure has been shown to decrease negative moods, improve physical health, and can move someone away from self-blame (Beike, et al., 2008). But why would sharing your regrets anonymously with strangers on a public forum make a difference?
Here are five reasons why. Online forums provide several things that support a therapeutic experience:
- What we experience online that triggers and satisfies basic human needs, such as connection, affiliation, group membership, and social validation—may be technically ‘virtual’ but they are interpreted as meaningful experience by the instinctual and emotional areas of the human brain.
- A key feature of a therapeutic environment is that it is a safe place to disclose feelings. On SecretRegrets.com, the anonymity creates that safety. People can post without feeling the prohibitive vulnerability that comes with exposing something that also carries embarrassment or shame.
- Like group therapy, the posts and comments from others validate the experience of regret for posters and readers alike. It becomes a shared experience and creates a sense of belonging. The person with regrets no longer feels alone or isolated. The comments posted on SecretRegrets.com are positive and supportive. My own work analyzing online forums has shown that people transform this type of online group validation into a more positive and agentic sense of self, becoming more effective in their ‘real’ lives.
- Unlike similarly anonymous telephone hotlines, online regrets are written. Expressing emotion in writing means creating a narrative structure around the regrets. Writing requires organizing complex thoughts and the process is self-reflective (Pennebaker & Seagal, 1999).
- Most importantly, SecretRegrets.com provides an outlet and support for people with no other avenues for disclosure. The feedback Kevin has received, although anecdotal, has shown the transformative effects of the ability to share in a safe place and receive support and validation.
The ability to disclose provides closure, but it also has a learning function. Regretting lost opportunities reminds us to be open to new opportunities to look for the second chance. Or as my dad would say, “Carpe Diem!”
Beike, D., Markman, K., & Karadogan, F. (2008). What We Regret Most Are Lost Opportunities: A Theory of Regret Intensity. Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 385-397
Morrison, M., & Roese, N. J. (2011). Regrets of the Typical American: Findings From a Nationally Representative Sample. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, Online. Retrieved March 26, 2011
Pennebaker, J. W., & Seagal, J. D. (1999). Forming a Story: The Health Benefits of Narrative. Journal of Clinial Psychology, 55 (10), 1243-1254
Cross-posted on Psychology Today’s Positively Media.