Fear of Regret

One of the biggest barriers to active decision making is Fear of Regret. This is the fear that one day in the future, we will regret a decision that we are tempted to make today. I find this fear particularly strong in relation to work related decisions, which do have big consequences. I was afraid to leave my secure job in case, at some time in the future, I decided it was a BAD IDEA, and wished I hadn’t done it. I had visions of being unable to get a new job, poverty in old age, and a new global recession.

Recently when I was doing the big clear out of excess belongings I found myself involved in a lot of conversations about peoples attitudes to their belongings and how they felt about them. “I might need it someday” came up a lot as a reason for holding on to things that otherwise seemed necessary. This is another form of Fear of Regret. It is fear of making a wrong decision and being caught out later.

There are two aspects to the Fear of Regret. The first is the actual impact of the decision. I might leave my job and find it much harder than expected to get another one, and I might be sorry I left. I might throw out the spare sponge for a squeeze mop that I no longer owned, only to find the mop a few days later (that really happened!) The other aspect is how we imagine we are going to feel about the situation that has arisen. Am I going to blame myself for being irresponsible for leaving work? Am I going to call myself an idiot for throwing out the spare sponge? Am I going to feel like a fool for trusting my gut.

It helps me to separate out these two aspects, because they have very different qualities, and call for different remedies. When trying to make a decision, we sometimes overlook or undervalue, the consequences of not making it. For example, if I ignore the urge for change in my work life, I know for sure that I am going to regret not making a move. Whereas the Fear of Regret associated with making a change is a worst case scenario that may never happen. On a smaller scale, when having a clean up in the laundry, there is a risk that I will throw away something I could have used later, but I know for certain that too much mess in the laundry is bothering me now. The benefit of having a tidy environment is worth the risk of making a small mistake and the annoyance of having to replace something.

I wonder if it is the fear of self blame, of being wrong, that is the real barrier to making decisions. If we can deal with this aspect compassionately, then Fear of Regret loses much of its sting. If I am working on a clean up project that involves throwing things away, I accept that there might be things that I miss later, but that it isn’t a big deal. Its worth the risk in order to move beyond the stuckness and create the environment that I want.

In relation to a more major change I remind myself that I am making the best decision that I feel I can make at the time. Even if it has unexpected consequences that I don’t like, it was done for the right reasons, and I am going to respect my desire to attempt to live an authentic life. If I decide in advance to stay kind to myself when the unexpected happens, I feel happier that I will be able to focus on the actual situation that needs to be addressed, free of recriminations.


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