The "Coulda Regret" and the Dark Side of the Ideal Self

How failure to meet the expectations of your ideal self causes enduring regrets.

Posted Feb 19, 2020

In a 2018 study published in the journal Emotions, psychologists Thomas Gilovich and Shai Davidai found that the most enduring types of regrets are the ones that involve a failure to live up to one's ideal self.

The findings indicated that people of various ages and demographics regret failing to fulfill their hopes, goals, and aspirations more than they regret failing to fulfill their duties, obligations, and responsibilities.

Furthermore, when participants were asked to list their single biggest regret in life, most people mentioned a regret about failing to meet the expectations of their ideal self.  

I Coulda Been Somebody

The "ideal self" is the idealized version of oneself and stems from our hopes, dreams, wishes, and aspirations.

It represents one of the three domains of the self according to the self-discrepancy theory. The other two are the "ought self," which is who we think we should be based on our duties, obligations, and responsibilities, and our "actual self," which is the representation of oneself based on attributes we currently possess.

You can think of it this way:

  • The ideal self is who I could be.
  • The ought self is who I should be.
  • And the actual self is who I currently am.

A regret that stems from a failure to live up to your ideal self involves regret about not acting in a way that could have taken "who you are" closer to "who you could have been."

In this way, "ideal self" regret is the coulda variety, à la "I coulda been a contender" from the 1954 film On the Waterfront. Whereas a regret that stems from who you ought to be is a shoulda regret ("I should have stayed in better contact with Grandma"), or as we will cover later on, more appropriately, the I shouldn't have (I shouldn't have called my boss that… especially on social media).  

That leaves the actual self with the woulda regrets ("I would have done it differently if I'd known…"). You can see from just the emotional valence of the woulda regret that it does not seem to be as strong or as haunting as the other two. But why is the coulda regret so enduring? The answer has to do with the question: "What do you regret more: what you have done, or what you did not do?"

Vitabello/Pixabay
Regrets That Won't Go Away
Source: Vitabello/Pixabay

Missed Opportunities

While regrettable action and regrettable inaction are both common, the authors of the 2018 study state that "people's most frequently mentioned regrets involve things they didn't do and wish they had done rather than things they did and wish they hadn't."

This is because most people, after experiencing regret over something said or done, take steps immediately to attempt to "undo" the consequences of the action and decrease the pain of the regret. While you cannot really "undo" the action, you can try and rectify any harmful comment or action through apologies or restitution, etc.

However, when regrettable inaction is performed, people tend only to realize that it is regrettable later down the road. As Gilovich's 1995 study explains, the pain of regrettable inaction is often felt more slowly than the pain of regrettable action, which is felt quickly and thus provides more of an immediate impetus to change.

Trying to "undo" a failure to act, on the other hand, is much harder, sometimes impossible, because once the window of opportunity closes, there may not be another chance to act. As Davidai and Gilovich, in their 2018 study, explain, "The one who got away might now be married."

Because shoulda regrets often involve a regrettable action, as opposed to an inaction, and stem from our sense of duty, "people are more likely to take steps to ameliorate regrets related to their ought selves than their ideal selves [thus] ought-related regrets are more likely to be filed away as resolved and thereby seem less bothersome with time," explain the authors.

On the contrary, the ideal-self regrets, the couldas, do not get resolved immediately, because they lack that sense of urgency. The very fact that ideal-self regrets can be ameliorated latter is exactly the paradoxical reason why they can become such enduring, nagging regrets.

The Paradox of Opportunity and the Despair of the Ideal Self

The ideal self is all about opportunity. The opportunity to pursue your hopes, dreams, and aspirations, and the opportunity of eventually making the person that you currently are into, one and the same, the person you could be. 

But research warns us not to be fooled by opportunity. In a 2005 study, authors Neal Roese and Amy Summerville explain that "opportunity breeds regret." Here is where the paradox comes in. The authors state that "regret persists in precisely those situations in which opportunity for positive action remains high."

The paradox of opportunity can explain why education is the number-one regret of Americans, regardless of age, life circumstances, or socioeconomic factors. As the authors explain, "You can always go back to school." Therefore, as the opportunities to act remain while you remain inactive, regret becomes more and more pronounced. 

The ideal self is all potentialities and possibilities, whereas the ought self is more grounded. As a 2003 study explained, unlike one's ought self, the ideal self is "more likely to be guided by abstract values than concrete behavioral restrictions."

This is in contrast to the expectations of the ought self. In the 2018 study, Davidai and Gilovich explain that "expectations of the ought self are usually more concrete and involve specific rules and so are easier to fulfill. But ideal-related regrets tend to be more general: Be a good parent, be a good mentor." This lack of clarity leaves plenty of opportunity for regret since even if you do work towards the goal, you are never sure if it is enough.

Imagining the Possibilities: Counterfactual Thinking

The ideal self and regret are a perfect couple. The ideal self loves opportunities and chances to transform, and regret loves counterfactual thinking.

As Gilovich explains in the 1995 study, "regret is fundamentally a counterfactual emotion: It arises from the contrast between what has actually happened and an easily imagined alternative outcome that might have happened."

After a regrettable action, or inaction, occurs, possible alternatives to the actual event are created. Additionally, regret is "upward" counterfactual thinking focusing on how the situation could have been better.

Meanwhile, the ideal self is very optimistic in that regret stemming from the ideal self will present a much more favorable comparison point than a more realistic one.

The 1995 study described the regrets of inaction as more "psychologically open" and more "imaginatively boundless," meaning that with inaction, "there is always more one could have done and further riches one might have enjoyed." The regret is not just: "I should have asked her out." It leaps further: "We coulda gone out… and I coulda been married with kids by now."

While a regret of action has one counterfactual scenario (not doing the action), ideal-self regrets allow the individual to pick their own counterfactual adventure and linger in the world of what things coulda been like. This is the dark, messy side of the ideal self—when the wish to live in the world of the person you could be consumes the happiness of the person you currently are.

How to Live in the Now

While regret from action tends to decrease over time, regret from inaction increases with time. In the 1995 study, Gilovich explained that "regrettable omissions often belong as much to the present as they do to the past. This sense of incompleteness and possibility that surrounds our failures to act keeps them alive longer."

When thinking about how to live in the now without major regrets hanging over your head, this particular finding from the 1995 study is important to keep in mind:

When participants were asked, "What do you regret not doing?" several people stated never pursuing a certain skill or hobby. However: 

No one regretted spending time developing a skill or hobby, even when the skill lies dormant, and the hobby is no longer pursued. No one reported any misgivings about spending their adolescence learning ballet or collecting coins, even though, as adults, they have given up dance, and the coin collection no longer holds interest.

When people look back on their lives, it is the things they have not done that generate the greatest regret.

So how do you live in the now? 

Research would suggest that if you have a choice between action and inaction, act. You could regret the action, but in the event that you do, it most likely will be less painful than if you never acted.