Why Do We Have A Strong Urge To Find Out What Might Have Been — Even When This Leads To Feelings Of Regret?

Though we would like to live without regrets and sometimes proudly insist that we have none, this is not really possible, if only because we are mortal.

James Baldwin

Regret is a fundamental part of living within the human experience. Expressions of regret are easy to find throughout the history of thought, and as indicated in the Old Testament of the bible, intrinsic to regret is a sense of emotional pain: “God regretted making humans on earth; God’s heart was saddened”.

Given the aversive experience of regret, traditional models of decision-making predict that people should to try to avoid it. But of course, the picture is more complex — we all have experienced the desire to know “what might have been”, even if it leads to regret. Now a study in Psychological Science, led by Lily FitzGibbon at the University of Reading, finds that the lure of finding out what might have been is surprisingly enticing.

Across six experiments, the researchers employed the Balloon Analogue Risk Task (BART) in which participants are required to inflate a computer animation of a balloon. The more they inflate the balloon, the greater the participant’s payoff — but each balloon has a randomly assigned “safe limit” above which it pops, and the participant is paid nothing.

In each trial, participants decided how many times to pump up the balloon and were then shown the trial outcome: whether the balloon popped (“bust” trials), or remained inflated thereby giving participants a reward (“bank” trials).

After this outcome was revealed, they had the opportunity to seek “counterfactual” information — that is, feedback about alternative possible outcomes; in this case, how far they could have pumped the balloon safely in the trial and how much they could have won.

Importantly, as the balloons’ safe limits varied randomly across trials, this information could not help performance later on in the task. Participants were asked to rate their emotional state, from sad to happy, after learning the outcome of the trial, and indicate whether this emotional state had changed after receiving the counterfactual information.

The researchers examined how often participants sought counterfactual information, as well as its emotional effects. They focussed their analysis on “bank” trials as these trials were expected to clearly elicit regret: counterfactual information on these trials normally signified a missed opportunity as the participant could usually have inflated the balloon more and therefore earned a higher reward.

Across all experiments, participants seemed to experience regret in “bank” trials: they felt significantly worse after receiving counterfactual information. Unsurprisingly, the greater the missed opportunity, the worse the participants felt. But even though this information elicited regret, counterfactual curiosity was high: participants requested feedback in 46% of “bank” trials across all the main experiments, and 71% in a replication study.

Strikingly, participants even spent money to receive counterfactual information: although counterfactual curiosity was higher when information was free, when they had to pay for it, they still requested feedback on 18% of bank trials.

Similarly, in experiments where participants needed to exert physical effort to obtain counterfactual information, they requested feedback around 50% of the time. This underlines how difficult it is to resist the motivational pull of learning about missed opportunities.

The counterfactual curiosity observed in “bank” trials also had detrimental effects on participants’ performance. After receiving such feedback, participants took greater risks on subsequent trials, which had a negative effect on the number of points won, particularly when this behavioural adjustment was large. This highlights a mechanism likely relevant to gambling and other addiction related problems: counterfactual curiosity can exacerbate damaging gambling or addictive behaviours.

While many regrets in life pertain to our own mistakes made in isolation, as social beings we continually fret over interactions with others. Of course, the BART test is an abstract paradigm so the study cannot speak to regrets of a more social nature.

While this is a question for future research, the strength of counterfactual curiosity exposed in the paper might suggest that many of us have a morbid curiosity to seek out regret in all forms.

What Do Addicts Tend To Regret The Most Once They Enter Recovery & Leave Active Substance Use Behind?

During active addiction, people often tell themselves they are fine, even if they don’t feel that way. They often blame other people for their problems. It’s not until they get sober that they see the full extent of the damage addiction caused. Here are the top 4 things that people in recovery tend to regret most.

Alienating Friends & Family

It’s pretty common for people in recovery to realise that their addiction was responsible for many strained and broken relationships. Perhaps most painful is realising just how much your parents and some of your friends actually put up with. Some relationships will never heal, and others will take a long time to repair.

Damaging Their Health

You don’t care that much about your health and personal hygiene during active addiction, but you might face some stark news early in recovery. It might even be health concerns that finally convince you to get help and ultimately cease using and/or drinking.

Most of the damage will heal if you quit early enough with proper, professional support and treatment, but you might be stuck with some problems.

If you contract HIV from IV drug use, get bad teeth from meth or develop liver cirrhosis from alcohol, you just have to live with it the best you can. Other problems such as fatty liver, malnutrition and mild cardiovascular damage will heal eventually, but it won’t be fun and you’ll probably worry about it a lot.

Missed Opportunities

Addiction subverts your priorities and impairs your judgment. Often your performance at school, work, volunteering or any other type of contractual task will suffer.

Addiction may cause you to lose opportunities because you’re too impaired, distracted or loose enthusiasm when substances dominate everything about the way you think, what you think about and the way that you actually behave. This might take the form of getting fired, or it might be subtler like not getting a promotion or scholarship because of mediocre performance when in reality, if your life wasn’t ruled by substances at the time, you may have succeeded in getting that promotion, training, business client, opportunity or anything else.

You might not even realise what’s happened until you get clean and sober further down the road.

Wasted Time & Money

Addiction takes up a lot of time and money. People in recovery are often surprised just how much extra time and money they have once they quit using or drinking.

All that time and money could have gone to better things. You could have been earning interest on the thousands or hundreds of thousands of pounds you spent on drugs and alcohol.

You could have learned several languages, explore interesting places around the world, bought your dream car or motorbike, started your dream business or spent more time with your family with all that extra time. It’s natural to feel some regrets. To some extent, regret is inevitable when you begin to see your situation more objectively.

Regret and guilt may also increase when a dearly loved family member, child, friend or colleague die and once you begin to “clean your act up” so to speak, the thoughts of those many missed opportunities to spend valuable time and enjoy experiences together with them which you know you can never get back again. This weight can also be one of the core reasons why people become stuck in active addiction as the pain of this realisation is too painful to cope with mentally and sometimes even physically.

This is where turning to receive help and support from trained and experienced professionals is vital as they can help you work through this type of pain which may be holding you back from successfully achieving and maintaining a long lasting recovery. We provide services who can help with this and many others issues with the help of our highly trained and experienced therapists. You can find out more here. You can also find a list of a wide variety of groups, charities and organisations who can help you on our help and support page here.

The important thing is not to fixate on it. You can’t change the past. All you can do is learn what you can, remember what addiction cost you and do whatever it takes to stay clean and sober at least for today.

TIP: We know that in reality, this can be easier said than done, but it is possible and one area of your recovery that you must continue to actively work on in order to achieve a long lasting, successful recovery.

10 Top Tips For Dealing With Regret About The Past While In Addiction & Recovery

1. Expect Feelings Of Regret & Guilt To Arise

The fact that these emotions of regret and guilt occur so commonly mean that it could be described as part of the healing process. On the other hand, to be even more accurate, these are one of the obstacles that people are likely to face in early recovery.

If you are prepared to be challenged in this way, you will be better able to deal with it, and any other guilt that may arise throughout life. It will mean you understand that what you are feeling is not anything unusual and that you will not feel this way forever. The fact that you have been expecting this regret and guilt to arise should also mean that you are better able to deal with it now that it has and that you are beginning to move in the right direction in order to heal and recover.

2. Understand That You Can’t Change The Past

It sounds like a cliché, but it is also the truth – there is nothing you can do that is going to change the past. What is done is done. It matters not how bad you make yourself feel; it is not going to change anything.

TIP: Getting upset and fixating upon the past is about as effective as getting upset over the weather. You can’t change or redo what’s happened, but you can change what you’re going to do about now, today and the future.

3. Remember That The Important Thing Is What You Are Doing Now

The important thing is not what you have done in the past but what you are doing right now; it is this that will determine your future. You deserve to have a second chance in life, but this will only be possible if you are prepared to move on with your life, admit that what’s happened, happened and now things will change for the better.

The way to do this is to now focus on doing positive, active things so you can begin to reap the rewards of this later on. Looking backwards is only going to ever hold you back, so the important thing now is for you to keep looking forward and making physical and mental progress which is the best thing you could possibly do to make up for the past.

4. Be Aware Of How Regret Can Be Used To Justify Relapse

One of the most dangerous aspects of this guilt about the past is that it can actually be used as a justification for relapse. In fact, some people dwell on these thoughts because they are just not fully committed to recovery and they want to have an excuse to go back to drinking alcohol or using drugs.

This type of thinking can occur consciously, but it can also be going on unconsciously. If you feel overwhelmed by regret, you need to understand that this is related to addictive thinking and it could mean that your sobriety or abstinence is in jeopardy. Having a sponsor, Keyworker, therapist or healthcare/recovery professionals can help you identify when this may be happening, even when you may not be able to recognise it yourself. They can also help you to come up with ways in which you can successfully overcome the feelings that you’re experiencing.

5. Understand That Obsessing About The Past Could Be Considered Selfish

Feeling regret about the past is never really about others, even if the regret you feel is connected to those you have hurt. The problem is that if a person really wants to make amends for their past misdeeds, they need to understand that feeling bad is not going to benefit any other person. This is why instead of feeling guilt and regret, it is much better to actively do something positive about the situation or circumstances instead of concentrating on past misdeeds, words that were said, things that were done and even what or who you may have lost.

6. Use A Recovery Programme To Help You Clear Up The Wreckage Of The Past

The 12-steps can be a particularly good programme for helping people deal with the mistakes they made in the past. This is because part of the process is about doing an inventory of past mistakes and making amends for these mistakes.

The 12-steps also include an on-going assessment process so that you are far less likely to end up with similar regrets in the future. Those who have completed the inventory part of this programme and have started to make amends can develop an almost born-again feeling.

If being part of a fellowship style program isn’t for you, you can find other groups, programs or therapies which can help you to carry out the same process. You can find a list of organisations, charities and groups who can help you on our help and support page here, by using our professional therapeutic services here or by contacting us directly and we can help you with this.

7. Speak with A Therapist Or Addiction Professional

If these feelings of guilt and regret persist or become overwhelming, then there is a danger that it could reduce or hinder your current chance of finding happiness in recovery and it being stable.

It is therefore vital that you do something to deal with them at the earliest possible opportunity before things become overwhelming and any possible collateral damage done.

Attending sessions with a therapist would be a great way to begin dealing with this “wreckage” of the past. One of the great benefits of entering a rehab or community based drug and alcohol service programme is that you will usually get to spend a good deal of time with these types of professionals who can best advice and help you.

This means you really get to dig down into your experiences. It is also going to be possible for you to spend time with a therapist as an outpatient (or on an ongoing basis if you are currently undergoing or wanting to go through a community based service/program), which can be an excellent way for you to strengthen your recovery and minimise any chances to lapse or relapse.

8. Develop Some Self-Compassion

One of the overriding reasons why the regret we experience about our past can be so crippling and overwhelming is that people often have an almost constant bombardment of negative and repetitive “flashbacks” and hindering thinking going on inside our heads, no matter what we’re doing or who we’re with.

This inner dialogue that we all often experience can be highly destructive and distracting, so it’s vital to be able to take control of it by identifying it when it arises, attempt to work out why it’s suddenly come to mind when it has, and challenging it with alternative, positive thinking strategies techniques to change this.

TIP: One of the best ways of doing this is to start developing some self-compassion. This means changing the soundtrack in your brain from one that is bullying, degrading and negative to one that is supportive, productive and positive!

We as human beings don’t get to choose which thoughts suddenly appear in our brain, but we do get to decide which ones we are going to focus and act on; this is what developing self-compassion is all about.

There are different techniques available for developing self-compassion, but one of the most effective is loving kindness meditation and mindfulness techniques. You can also speak to a therapist or drug and alcohol professional to find others that suit your needs and circumstances.

Also in the beginning, we often come up against thoughts such as:

  • I can’t do it
  • I’m not strong enough
  • I can’t cope with the overwhelming withdrawal symptoms
  • No one likes me
  • I’m not worth it or I don’t deserve it
  • Ect

I’m sure that you will be able to identify most, if not all of those thoughts and feelings at one time or another, and I’m sure that you can add many, many more too, but this type of behaviour is tiresome and draining, sapping your happiness and enthusiasm daily.

But don’t fret, you can do something about this. It can be done by learning to use an altered thinking process and also by using positive affirmations daily. This may sound dodgy at first but I promise, once you’ve learnt about it and how to apply it to your life, you’ll reap the benefits straight away. You can read our previous article on this topic by clicking here.

9. Do Some Form Of Service For Others

Doing volunteer work or helping others can be an excellent way of overcoming feelings of regret while increasing your self-esteem at the same time. Even just trying to do one kind act every day for either someone you know, or even better, someone that you don’t know can be a great way to enjoy the benefits of helping others.

TIP: Doing something for someone else who you don’t know can have other benefits which may not be apparent at first. A stranger may be having a really bad day or be suffering with an addiction or mental health condition, which may be made easier simply by doing something positive for them. We would all like to think that others would help us if we needed it, so share kindness with others and both you and them will benefit!

If you belong to a recovery fellowship or some other form of recovery group, you will find that these organisations offer many ways for you to do service. You do not have to spend every waking hour helping others or even spend absolutely zero money, but you should try to do at least one good action like this every day for someone else, even if it’s something as little as making someone a cup of tea or coffee if they seem down, distracted or upset. This is also about planting positive “karma seeds” that are going to benefit your life in the future.

10. Understand That You’re Just A Human Being Like Everyone Else, Who Has & Will Make Mistakes Throughout Their Recovery & Lifetime.

It is part of the human condition to make mistakes, and everyone has done things that they deeply regret. These could be knowingly, unintentionally or as a direct side effect/consequence of having an addiction.

It is vital that you are able to accept your fallibility and just move on with your life – always trying to be better in the future. This is not to justify doing wrong, but to allow you to function in recovery. As long as you learn from your mistakes, you do not need to obsessively beat yourself up or even punish yourself over them. It isn’t productive and will not change what’s happened, however like we said earlier, you can decide to change the things that you will do from now onwards, this is productive and positive.

So, You’ve Ended Up In A Situation Or Circumstances Where Your Lifelong Dreams Have Caused Nothing But Regret. What Should I Do Now-Onwards?

So, we all often continually reminisce or dwell on the if’s, but’s, maybes and “what could have beens” that are often a direct result of having an addiction. When you begin to see certain aspects of your lifelong plans or relationships being thwarted from those big, far reaching dreams and desires, that we all begin with when we were at school, work or anywhere else come to that.

We then tend to focus on the various overriding feelings of regret, emptiness, failure or loss that our addiction ended up leading us to feel.

TIP: No matter what you may feel that you’ve lost out on, sold, exchanged, neglected or any other, you can change this from today onwards.

Every day is a new day in which you can become whatever you want to become and achieve whatever you want to achieve.

Remember that you can’t change the past deeds that you and others may have committed, but you can do, and become whatever you want to be and do each and every day from now onwards.

So, push the metaphorical boat out and explore the new strange and exciting opportunities that await you every single day instead of reliving past experiences that can’t be changed!

I Want To Change My Life Around But I Have No Idea Where To Start, Where Can I Get More Help?

First of all, give yourself a huge pat on the back for recognising that your substance use/dependency has become overwhelming and unmanageable!

Many people don’t appreciate the self-praise that they deserve when it comes to realising that what they’re doing just isn’t working, nor sustainable.

We want to do all that we can to help you get off to the greatest and most comprehensive, start. Check out our suggestions below to get you going with:

  1. Get in touch with us here at Drink ‘n’ Drugs. Our highly trained and experienced professionals are all recovering themselves who began as qualified and registered healthcare professionals before they developed their own addictions themselves (this just goes to show that no one is immune to being pulled into the world of addiction), as no one can truly empathise with another addict who’s also walked many, MANY miles in your shoes. You can contact Drink ‘n’ Drugs directly by contacting us through our contact us page here.
  2. Our therapists, Keyworkers and supporting staff/volunteers have all had addictions themselves to drugs, alcohol or both, so we know what works and what doesn’t! You can find out more about our professional therapies and recovery services by clicking here for more information.
  3. On our help and support page, you can find contact information for a wide variety of groups, charities and organisations who can help you overcome your addiction. You can find out more about our professional services by clicking here.
  4. Likewise if there’s something that you think may help you but are having problems with it, then please feel free to come forward and we will do our best to help you!


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Published by Drink ’n’ Drugs

Providing useful, relevant, up to date information and support for those suffering from active addiction or those who are in recovery.

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