Woulda Coulda Shoulda: The Kaleidoscope of Regret

Do you ever torment yourself with self-anger, guilt, regret, or remorse?

Posted Sep 04, 2019

 Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

The generally sarcastic expression “woulda coulda shoulda” eludes any simple definition. But what’s most notable about this idiom is that it implies possibilities that, given the human psyche, lack any basis in reality.

Let’s start, however, by investigating some of the ways the phrase has been used—and misused. If a person replies to something you said by remarking, “Yeah, right, woulda coulda shoulda,” it means they’re rejecting your argument that you could, would, or should have acted differently in a situation where your behavior led to a negative outcome.

Or, as Wiktionary much more technically characterizes it: “[It’s] an expression of dismissiveness or disappointment concerning a statement, question, explanation, course of action, or occurrence involving hypothetical possibilities, uncertain facts, or missed opportunities.” (And, however awkwardly, that definition covers just about all its conceivable contingencies.)

On the other hand, this well-known word grouping, when it’s delivered not by another but (wistfully) emanating from yourself, is intimately tied to the emotion of regret. And who hasn’t experienced regret over things they’ve said or done in the past—or, for that matter, didn’t do?

In a post entitled “The Meaning of Regret,” Bruce Grierson states that “some studies show...[that] regret is the second most common emotion people mention in daily life. And [that] it’s the most common negative emotion.” Moreover, other research suggests that children as young as two have already evolved a rudimentary notion of regret. For that matter, consider how many times you’ve muttered to yourself the words “If only...."

Given the universal prevalence of this emotion, it’s important to logically assess its essential rationality as it relates to things that didn’t turn out as hoped. That is, when you say “if only...”, could that be more of a rationalization than a rational explanation for what ended up causing you distress or disappointment?

We all operate on the basis of conditioning or programming. And this programming reflects the sum total of our nature (i.e., all of our genetic and biological predispositions) and our nurture (i.e., all the elements in our environment that have served to influence our thinking and behavior). By definition, our inborn nature isn’t subject to change, but there are various outward factors that, over time, can alter or revamp our programming. And these externalities are what can change both how we see things and act on them.

Maybe the key point here is embedded in the durational phrase “over time,” for at any particular chapter in your development, your programming till then will dictate your behavior. And it could hardly be otherwise. True, it’s not as simple as one stimulus culminating in one response, because many stimuli can lead to a single response and, too, a single stimulus can result in a variety of responses. But whatever your final reaction, it’s governed by the values or priorities that at that time were most compelling to you.

So, for instance, if you were optimistic and self-confident and believed you could handle whatever the (uncertain) outcome of your behavior, you would determine to go for it. But if, rather, you felt anxious and insecure, without the internal resources to risk possible failure, such self-protective programming would mandate your not taking action.

I won’t get into any free will vs. determinism debate here, except to say that unless you see human behavior as an inexplicable mystery (which, as a psychologist, I really cannot), there must be psychological ways to account for why people feel drawn to do what they do. And even if we can’t ever be entirely sure of their motives, unquestionably some interpretations of their conduct make a lot more coherent sense than others. As a simple example, if someone contracts a tension headache, it’s safe to conclude that some thing, or things, were making them “uptight”—regardless of whether we can precisely weigh each factor contributing to their tension.

Following this line of reasoning would seem to render regret the most foolish, and futile, of emotions. For what justification is there to regret something that, given everything going on in your head at that particular moment, compelled whatever action you ultimately decided upon? And that’s hardly to preach moral nihilism, for we all must be held responsible for our behaviors or civilized society couldn’t exist. But it does argue for a stance of compassionate understanding and humanitarian support for humans, realizing that given the many internal and external forces directing our behavior, our choice of action can never be seen as entirely “free.” Whether we recognize it or not, if we can grasp just how at any distinct time our nurture is combining with our nature, our action is actually predictable...and, frankly, inevitable.

Nonetheless, this isn’t to say that regret—at least, initially—doesn’t have a useful role to play in our lives. As long as we’re not endlessly obsessing over past decisions, but rather striving to comprehend why we felt restricted to certain choices we later wished we hadn’t, such after-the-fact analyses can assist us in making better—and probably braver—decisions in the future.  As Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, famously concluded: “Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards.”

Typically when we fail to act, or act rashly, it’s because we’ve been either too afraid to leave the inherent safety of our comfort zone or too impulsive in stepping outside it, oblivious to its possible adverse effects. If, however, we scrupulously reevaluate past decisions (as in, “hindsight is always 20/20”), we can identify what in our past thinking was misguided, and so productively change it.

Wisdom derives from the judicious appraisal—or re-appraisal—of our experience. And we can’t learn from all that we go through unless we bring an ever-increasing maturity or thoughtfulness to bear on it. Whether we like it or not, life brings us additional experiences daily, so if we take maximum advantage of everything we’re exposed to, our judgment will become evermore informed, sophisticated, and trustworthy.

And this is just another way of saying that to the extent that your experience of regret indicates that you’re attempting to fathom the essence of your errant behavior, the very fact of your remaining conscious of it and willing to consider it in a different light (vs. denying or defending it) increases the probability that in an analogous situation you’ll use this knowledge to decide differently—and more beneficially.

Moreover, if something wrong in the past can still be made right in the present, you’ll be more likely to avail yourself of the opportunity to take corrective action. And if it’s too late for that, you’ll be all the more ready to let it go. Remember, especially, that nothing you can learn from—even if you realize that in the end there isn’t anything to learn from it—can be thought of as in vain.

Finally, regret is only valuable if it can be resolved—if it’s a point of departure vs. an endpoint. That is, to mercilessly torture yourself over a past action without taking into account what was driving you at the time is an (unrecognized) form of self-abuse. It will lead only to feelings of self-sabotage, self-denigration, and self-defeat. A far more nurturant objective here is to do better—and more wisely—in the future.

In no case, however, does holding onto regrets, as though it would be imprudent or unethical to do otherwise, facilitate anything positive. You might even find that in re-examining a past situation from a different, more detached and sympathetic perspective, what you originally thought was your responsibility was actually another’s—or nobody’s at all.

I often write about the paramount importance of unconditional self-acceptance (e.g., see “The Path to Unconditional Self-Acceptance”). So to move in this most beneficent of existential directions—the optimal route to happiness and inner tranquility—it’s crucial to let bygones be bygones...but, of course, only after taking away as many valuable lessons from them as possible.

Again, to “get a good return” on your regrets, turn them into hard-won insights and wisdom—about who you were back then, who you are now, and who you can yet be in the future. Hopefully, what you’ll discover is a greater willingness to take (carefully calculated) risks and make the most of whatever opportunities now present themselves to you.

As Jim Taylor forcefully puts it in “Personal Growth: Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda": “Good things don’t always happen when we take action, but...more good things happen when we go for it than when we run from it.”

 © 2019 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

References

Brent 2.0 (2014, Oct. 17). Are you haunted by would have, could have, should have? Retrieved from http://www.ilivethelifeilove.com/would-have-could-have-should-have/

Davidai, S. & Gilovich, T. (2018). The ideal road not taken: The self-discrepancies involved in people’s most enduring regrets. Emotion, 18 (3), 439-452. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/emo0000326

Epstude, K. & Roese, N. J. (2008). The functional theory of counterfactual thinking. Pers. Soc. Psychol Rev, 12 (2). Retrieved from doi: 10.1177/1088868308316091

Grierson, B. (2017, Oct. 31). The meaning of regret. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-carpe-diem-project/201710/the-meaning-regret

Kelley, S. (2018, May 29). Woulda, coulda, shoulda: The haunting regret of failing our ideal selves. Retrieved from https://medicalxpress.com/news/2018-05-woulda-coulda-shoulda-ideal.html

Perkins, L., Boyle, T., & Klahr, R. (2017, Sept. 11). Why we can’t shake life’s ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ moments. Retrieved from www.npr.org

Schwartz, B., Ward, A., et. al. (2002). Maximizing versus satisficing: Happiness is a matter of choice. Retrieved from Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83 (5), 1178-1197.

Seltzer, L. (2008, Sept. 10). The path to unconditional self-acceptance. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/evolution-the-self/200809/the-path-unconditional-self-acceptance

Streep, P. (2015, Apr. 22). Why regret may not always be a bad thing (but sometimes is). Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/tech-support/201504/why-regret-may-not-always-be-bad-thing-sometimes-is

Taylor, J. (2012, May 30). Personal growth: Woulda, coulda, shoulda. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-power-prime/201205/personal-growth-woulda-coulda-shoulda