What we learned about regret.

We, Matter–Mind Studio, hold workshops with the general public to unpack the complex nature of emotions. The workshops we design and run generally act as a safe space for participants to pause on a specific emotional state with the goal to simply sit with and begin understanding the complexity, contradictions, and nuances of that emotion.

This most recent workshop meditated on regret; how it feels and how it works. We commonly hear about regret in many contexts. We regret getting a tattoo. We tell ourselves, “Never regret.” We desperately look for ways to overcome the intense feeling of regret. On a deathbed we ask, “What is my biggest regret?” Kathryn Shultz, Pulitzer-winning writer notes,

“Regret is the emotion we experience when we think that our present situation could be better or happier if we had done something different in the past. So in other words, regret requires two things. It requires, first of all, agency — we had to make a decision in the first place. And second of all, it requires imagination. We need to be able to imagine going back and making a different choice, and then we need to be able to kind of spool this imaginary record forward and imagine how things would be playing out in our present. And in fact, the more we have of either of these things — the more agency and the more imagination with respect to a given regret, the more acute that regret will be.”
While Shultz thoughtfully and concisely defined regret, the conversation we had in our workshop was open, leaving it up to each participant’s unique experience to define what regret feels and looks like. This would give each participant and us as facilitators and designers a diverse, subjective, and nuanced understanding of a deeply complicated emotional state.

Our workshop did not seek to define regret, but to hear and share stories about what regret feels like and to build a detailed anatomy of regret.

In one of the main activities of the workshop, participants took time to independently reflect on their understanding of regret, and mapped out their understanding on paper.

These diagrams some of the participant drew should not be taken as conclusive. Instead, they suggest how each person understood regret as a general concept and/or as a personal experience on that day, in that moment. For their privacy, the details and identity of the participants have been omitted.

This participant’s diagram below shows how regret punctuates and expands throughout formative moments in life.

This participant shares that regret can follow a stream of circumstances, people, emotions, and results in change.

This participant’s diagram below depicts the way regret arises occasionally among other emotions and states of mind, but is light and uncomplicated to move on from.

This participant shares that the experience of regret is like an inner whirlwind of reflecting that with time and pressure results in enlightenment and relief.

The maps participants generously shared and the open discussion that followed revealed curious qualities of regret: The feeling of regret can last only a moment and easily dissipate. You can sit immobilized by the smallest regret for days. One regretful moment can follow you over a lifetime. Ongoing rituals can be designed to symbolically let go of a regret. Wisdom about the regretful moment can grow exponentially over time.

Thank you for taking the time to read this article. Check out more emotion-focused design at Matter–Mind Studio.