Regret And Worry: A User’s Guide

How to not worry and regret too much…or not enough.

Posted May 31, 2015

“Man is the only animal that blushes. Or needs to.” Mark Twain

Man is also the only animal that worries and regrets. Or needs to.

We need to because worry and regret are part of the human package deal. They come with our unprecedented capacity for learning.

Are we the smartest animal? Depends what you call smart. We are definitely the fastest learners. We’re so fast we can’t keep up with ourselves. We find brilliant solutions that create worrisome new problems. We outsmart ourselves, and sometimes regret the messes we get ourselves into.

Regret and worry are byproducts of language, which is the big difference between us and other animals. Language, or symbols more generally, aren’t just labels associated with things in the outer world, but with other words, creating vast internal network, a word-web.

Take any word and follow it out in any direction through the word-web. For example:

Shadow: Blocked sun (not sunblock), but also a son growing up in his father’s shadow, the father who is, beyond a shadow of a doubt a shadow of his former self:  self-abasement, self-absorption, self-abuse, self-acceptance, self-advancement, self-analysis, self-assured, self-aware, self-awareness, and that’s just the –A’s. I could go on and so could you, wandering through our omnidirectional word-webs.

Words connected to words, not just to things in the world, became worlds unto themselves. They are what give us our minds-eye view, not just a view of the world right in front of us but our whole imaginative capacity, our ability to envision way in front of us, future worlds, some of them worrisome, and worlds behind us, some of them regrettable.

Humans are the world’s first fully bi-mundial species, living in two worlds at once, the concrete world that all animals inhabit and the minds-eye world, which is not just one world, but an infinite expanse of word-generated worlds, any world we can imagine. Our bi-mundiality makes us the visionary geniuses and delusional fools we are--the regretters and worriers too.

Language-free, other animals hardly review or rehearse, recollect or foresee, beat themselves up over mistakes or worry in anticipation. Evolutionary history and long term consequences matter to animal behaviors but not they way they do in us, because we have a whole other world of learning, the world of our imagination where we mine our histories for what to do differently in the minds-eye foreseeable future.

Humans can be short-sighted but only in contrast to our potential for minds-eye long-sightedness. And we can become obsessed with long-sightedness, dwelling regretfully on the past and worrying excessively on the future. And to avoid worry and regret, we can retreat to the comfort zones of imagined worlds, and end up regretting and worrying too little.

To avoid excess in either direction, a little reflection on how regret and worry work comes in handy. So here’s a basic user’s guide to regret and worry:

Regret and worry are alarms signaling that maybe our grooves have become ruts. Grooves and ruts are both channels, or slots we run down over time. They have walls that contain us. The walls prevent escape from what we’re doing. In other words, our grooves and ruts are our habits. We love grooves; we hate ruts. Grooves contain us cozily; ruts contain us claustrophobically.

Think of your many channels:  Your job, partnership, residence, bills, commitments, obligations, family, friendships, memberships, roles, beliefs, attitudes and practices. You’re rolling down many channels at once.

The difference between grooves and ruts is in their long-term prospects. Grooves pay off; ruts don’t. Stick with your grooves and they’ll roll you smoothly to where you want to go. Ruts are bumpier channels driving you toward where you don’t want to be, including dead ends.

Regret and worry are alarms that go off, prompting us to think, “Maybe my habit isn’t working. Maybe it’s a rut, not a groove.”

Of course, there are false alarms. Something goes wrong or could, and the alarm goes off, prompting us to reassess our habits when actually there’s no need to reassess. We’re already on the right track (by word-web association, a reverse groove since train wheels are the grooves that hold the track) and we need to just stick with it. Just keep doing what you’re doing. Momma told you there’d be setbacks like this. You’re regretting and worrying over nothing.

There are also true alarms that go unheeded. Something goes wrong or could, the alarm goes off but we dismiss it. The signs are there, the writing on the wall: dead-end ahead, but we ignore it and keep rolling down our rut, pretending it’s a groove.

Heeding and ignoring are also a function of temperament and in particular neuroticism, one of the big five personality traits, the tendency to experience unpleasant emotions easily, such as anger, anxiety, depression, and vulnerability, all emotions that shout, “This ain’t working. I’ve got to get out of this rut!” People high in neuroticism are more sensitive to the alarms; people low in neuroticism are more insensitive to them.

Circumstances also affect our response to the alarms. You’re more likely to heed alarms if your channels are shallow and therefore easily exited--a non-committal job, a casual partnership, a habit easy to break, or nobody expecting you to stay in it so you have to rely on your fickle self-discipline. One bad early interaction in a causal partnership can bump you right out of that shallow channel.

Deeper grooves and ruts make you less likely to wonder whether you’re on the right track. The walls hold you tall and tightly. People in steady, obviously good long-term jobs and marriages can weather many a setback without wondering if they should be doing something else. We seek deep grooves in part because they’ll make the alarms ignorable. We don’t welcome those alarms. They throw us off our game, they distract, they open unwieldy cans of worms.

Age too changes our response to the alarms. A shorter long-term future still ahead of you can make you less responsive to the alarms. If at 75, your marriage gets rocky is changing channels worth the effort? Probably not.

A lot of seniors report that as they get older they become more comfortable in their own skin. Their habits and circumstances are good enough, in part because their channels get deeper but also because the payoff for changing is simply not worth it. You can teach old dogs new tricks but it’s often not worth it to them, since they won’t have much time to use their new hard-earned tricks.

With age, we also get more honest and accurate about what we’re likely to change. In my youth I launched many a repeated short-lived campaign to change channels, campaigns that by now, I know simply won’t last long enough to kick the habit. When the alarm goes off, I hear it but I assume it’s not worth heeding--insufficient self-discipline to pull off that transition. Not in this lifetime.

A lot of our talk meant to amplify or dampen alarms. People who regret and worry too much turn up the words meant to dampen the alarms, even claiming regret and worry are a total waste of time, always a total dead end.

But we all know people we think should regret or worry more, criminals and politicians, stubborn, reckless, heedless people denying they’re in a rut when we know they are.

Can any of us escape regret and worry entirely? Not in these languaged lifetimes of ours. But getting an honest handle on what regret and worry really are can help us ignore and heed the alarms more productively.