Research shows that the depth of our regret is often related to our ability to achieve closure (Beike, Markman, & Karadogan, 2008). We can get closure by finding a ‘second change’-having future opportunities to make a new choice. For events that cannot be changed and where the circumstances are not repeatable, closure is harder to get. Psychological closure happens when we can get some distance or a new perspective-when we can shed past possible selves and goals and move forward.
Recent research by Morrison & Roese (2011) out of Northwestern’s Kellogg School of Management categorized the regrets of a typical American. They divided the responses about regret into 12 domains, with top six being, not surprisingly, romance, family, education, career, finance, and parenting. That’s all very well and good, but what can we DO when we experience regret? How can we move beyond it?
Self-disclosure has been shown to decrease negative moods, improve physical health, and can move someone away from self-blame (Beike, et al., 2008). But why would sharing your regrets anonymously with strangers on a public forum make a difference?
Here are five reasons why. Online forums provide several things that support a therapeutic experience:
- What we experience online that triggers and satisfies basic human needs, such as connection, affiliation, group membership, and social validation—may be technically ‘virtual’ but they are interpreted as meaningful experience by the instinctual and emotional areas of the human brain.
- A key feature of a therapeutic environment is that it is a safe place to disclose feelings. On SecretRegrets.com, the anonymity creates that safety. People can post without feeling the prohibitive vulnerability that comes with exposing something that also carries embarrassment or shame.
- Like group therapy, the posts and comments from others validate the experience of regret for posters and readers alike. It becomes a shared experience and creates a sense of belonging. The person with regrets no longer feels alone or isolated. The comments posted on SecretRegrets.com are positive and supportive. My own work analyzing online forums has shown that people transform this type of online group validation into a more positive and agentic sense of self, becoming more effective in their ‘real’ lives.
- Unlike similarly anonymous telephone hotlines, online regrets are written. Expressing emotion in writing means creating a narrative structure around the regrets. Writing requires organizing complex thoughts and the process is self-reflective (Pennebaker & Seagal, 1999).
- Most importantly, SecretRegrets.com provides an outlet and support for people with no other avenues for disclosure. The feedback Kevin has received, although anecdotal, has shown the transformative effects of the ability to share in a safe place and receive support and validation.
Beike, D., Markman, K., & Karadogan, F. (2008). What We Regret Most Are Lost Opportunities: A Theory of Regret Intensity. Personality And Social Psychology Bulletin, 35, 385-397
Morrison, M., & Roese, N. J. (2011). Regrets of the Typical American: Findings From a Nationally Representative Sample. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, Online. Retrieved March 26, 2011
Pennebaker, J. W., & Seagal, J. D. (1999). Forming a Story: The Health Benefits of Narrative. Journal of Clinial Psychology, 55 (10), 1243-1254