One of the things that I enjoy about the social networking site Facebook is that I get introduced to new ideas and points of view. Sometimes I join various groups after my friends do, just to see what they are all about. So, it's not surprising that I recently joined a Facebook group called, "I wish I could go back to when I met you, and walk away." I confess that I joined out of curiosity, knowing that there would likely be some interesting personal stories there. I also must admit that I joined because I do feel that way about particular people who I've known over the years - haven't we all been there?

What immediately struck me about this group is how raw the wall posts are, and how genuine they seem to be. This is the real dirt, the real inner workings of people, the nasty little feelings that we try to bury deep down, often with only mediocre success. I was captivated! These are truly fascinating snippets of people's - strangers - personal lives, condensed into some of the most painful and intimate statements I've ever read. Many of them are poorly written, which somehow adds to their purity, as though the author just had to get it out and was not worried about the boundaries of grammar or punctuation.

Here are some examples from women (and there are far more posts from women than men). Remember, they are responding to the group: "I wish I could go back to when I met you, and walk away." I've sanitized them to remove the profanity and to make them a little easier to understand. 

"I wish i could go back 6 years ago when i first met you, so i could have prevented marrying u, waiting a year for u, being abandoned by you and getting my heart trampled one by you.... Most of all because I still love you. You was my world, I revolved around u, I breathed you, my heart beat for you. Each day goes by..."

"i would do better, if i haven't met him in the first place!"

"i wish i could go back to when i met you, punch you in the nose, and walk away. ♥" - the heart was included in her statement.

"maybe I'd actually have a career and have my s**t under control instead of this spiral of chaos i call life..."

"...because our child deserved a better father."

The posts from men tend to be similar although overall, I found them a little less emotion-laden and a great deal shorter - I had to sift through quite a few to get some longer ones:

"Dear ex girlfriend, i thoroughly hate you."

"Just like after being dumped, because your girlfriend can't make up her mind whether she likes or hates you."

"All the time I spent pining over you and you couldn't give two flying f**s about me"

"1 year, 7 months, and 29 days. And you cheated on me the entire time. You can jump off the empire state building now. Kthanx"

"I'd pretty much give everything but my car to do this"

Some of the people are still in the relationship they wish they hadn't started:

"I wish i could walk away from this fool right now!!! 3 years and nothing...ugh"

And then there is the element of self-help or self-recognition:

"starting to feel that way, as much as it pains me to admit it. I don't like pain."

Then there are people who have come to terms with the fact that they didn't walk away from someone, or that it just is something they have to accept. After reading so many painful posts, I was particularly inspired by one woman who wrote,

"sometimes I am glad I didn't sometimes I'm glad u didn't."

Another wrote:

"i feel the same but there's no reason to regret anything....b.c at one point or another you wanted it.."

A few people posted about retribution, as in the evil-doer will get their just desserts:

"screw all the losers that screw everyone over.. don't waste time thinking about them.. just smile cause one day when they least expect it they'll get what's coming to them.."

I spent a full morning just reading posts like these. Why is this so interesting? What is it about these strangers' feelings that held my attention when I should have been doing one of the items on my to-do list?

I first wondered if it is similar to the reasons that we gossip. According to some researchers, we gossip as a way to get a short cut to relevant information, without putting ourselves directly in those situations. We live vicariously, reaping benefits of wisdom and insight without any of the costs. We tend to gossip about things that matter to us, such as whether someone is cheating on someone, potential pregnancies, whether someone is a good friend, how people look, about personalities and behaviour. In a way, these posts are revealing the same sorts of content - some posts even have names of the evil-doer attached so that the reader knows who to avoid.

But I think it's more than that - I think there is something really primal about the feeling of regret, and that is what these posts are actually all about. Psychologists still debate what the "basic" or core emotions are, but surely, regret has to be considered a pretty important one.

Recently (2008) there was a really exciting paper published by researchers Colleen Saffrey, Amy Summerville and Neal Roese. They propose that regret has a very positive side. When compared to other emotions, such as anger, boredom, disappointment, fear, guilt, jealousy and sadness, regret stands alone as having a positive impact on people's lives. According to the authors, "People value their regret experiences. They value it both in an absolute sense (the favorable aspects outweigh the unfavorable aspects) and in a relative sense (compared to other commonly experienced negative emotions)."

Regret, although it drags up all the sludge that most of us would like to forget, allows us to grow. Ideally, when faced with a similar situation in the future, we can use the experience we had to not fall into the same trap. Regret gives us a chance to re-examine our decisions and feel a sense of control; ultimately, if we are talking about regret, we're talking about regret in our own decision-making. By extension, it allows our imaginations to run around and think, what would have happened if I did not do that thing? What if I had pursued Person X for a romantic relationship instead of so-and-so? What if I had never met Person X? What if I had never had sexual relations with Person X? What if - what if?

What about all these people in the Facebook group? They obviously sought out membership in the group for some underlying reason - perhaps to feel a sense of community by sharing their experience, or maybe because they want to learn from other's regretful experiences. Maybe they just need the cathartic release of saying that they made a poor decision at some point, however trivial it might have seemed at the time.

Tying this back to me, why did I find the posts engaging? Maybe it was to learn that I'm not the only one living with regrets about a handful of my interpersonal relationships, and to learn vicariously about other's experiences. What I did realize is that regret is truly unique, no doubt about it, and the next time I'm feeling it nibbling away at me, I'll try to remember that it's all for the best.

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