Regretting your move to Japan is an uncomfortable position to be in. Though it can be a helpful emotion, it can easily turn into a way to beat ourselves up, leaving us feeling defeated and worthless, and more likely to make decisions we’re unhappy with.
In this article, I’ll go over what regret is, how to tell if your regret from moving to Japan is serving you well or not, and what you can do about it.
What is Regret?
Regret occurs when we believe our choice is to blame for a current, undesirable situation. Regret occurs when we believe a different choice would have resulted in a better outcome.
A unique characteristic to regret is that it’s always connected to a person’s choice. If the person didn’t have a choice, then he or she won’t experience regret.
Another important characteristic is that in order to experience regret, it requires us to imagine other possible outcomes: “My life would be better if I would have chosen to stay in the United States instead of moving to Japan.”
Without imagination, a person can’t experience regret.
Types of Regret
Regret can come in different forms and a concept known as self-discrepancy theory is key to understanding these. The theory, developed by Tory Higgins, explains that there are three levels of the self:
- Actual self or who I am
- Ideal self or who I want to/could be
- Ought self or who I should be
Feelings of regret occur when we make a decision that creates a gap between our actual self and ought self; or a gap between our actual self and ideal self.
Another layer to help distinguish between types of regrets is the layer of action: inaction and action. That is, some regrets come from our choice not to act, other regrets come from our choice to act.
Another way to understand inaction vs actions is:
- Action = what we did wrong
- Inaction = what we could have done
For example, “I regret moving to Japan” is a regret due to an action. “I regret not calling my family more while living in Japan” is due to a person’s inaction.
So there are different types of regret, which I’ve broken down into different “layers” based on the research conducted by Gilovich and Medvec:
- Gap between actual self and ideal self
- Gap between actual self and ought self
- Regret due to action (what we did wrong)
- Regret due to inaction (what we could have done)
Identifying the type of regret you’re experiencing is done by combining one element from each of the two layers.
“I regret moving to Japan because I’m missing important time with my family” is most likely a result of a gap between the actual self and ought self (maybe this person feels obligated to spend more time with family) AND regret due to action (the decision to move to Japan).
Why bother identifying your type of regret?
It can be useful because we experience different types of regret in different ways.
How We Experience Regret
When there is a gap between the actual self and ideal self, a person is more likely to experience sadness and depression (low energy emotions) (Gilovich et al, 1998).
When there is a gap between the actual self and ought self, a person is more likely to experience fear, guilt, and restlessness (high energy emotions) (Gilovich et al, 1998).
For regrets due to action (what we did wrong), a person is likely to experience high energy emotions, while regrets due to inaction (what we could have done), are likely to bring about low energy emotions (Gilovich et al, 1998).
What Regret Research Tells Us
Shai Davidai and Tom Gilovich did some interesting research on regret.
In their studies, they found that we tend to regret things we could have done (inaction), which would have brought us closer to our ideal self, much longer than any other type of regret.
They also found that in general, action regrets (what we did wrong) that form a gap between our actual self and ought self prompt people to act quickly to make repairs to the situation. As a result, we fix the situation, and we’re over the regret relatively quickly.
This makes a lot of sense given the fact that action regrets tend to spark high energy emotions, feelings like fear and guilt, which motivate us to act quickly.
For example, if you lie and tell a friend you can’t go out to dinner because you’re busy at work, but then run across that person at a bar 15 minutes later, you’re probably going to have some strong negative emotions motivating you to act quickly; perhaps your motivated to apologize and explain why you had lied.
For inaction regrets (what we could have done) that create a gap between the actual self and ideal self, there is less urgency. “We can always do that later,” we say.
For example, maybe you keep delaying working on your current relationship. Things feel somewhat stable, and you’re just really busy. You keep thinking, “I have time to improve the relationship, but right now I really need to focus on my career.”
Though you have some itch to work on it, it doesn’t feel urgent. So, you put it off. Slowly, your negative feelings grow and the urge to work on it grows, but one day your partner ends the relationship.
According to Davidai and Gilovich’s research, you’re more likely to experience the pain from this regret much longer than the lying to a friend scenario.
Intuitively this makes a lot of sense. For the relationship scenario, there’s likely nothing you can do about it after your partner leaves. It’s too late. Then the imagination takes over and imagines all the different things you could have done to save the relationship, and how much happier you would be if you would have acted sooner.
In addition, the research shows that we’re likely to experience regret from gaps between the actual self and ideal self longer because our ideal selves are usually vaguely defined. For example, “I want to be rich, happy, and marry a beautiful partner.”
When our ideas are vaguely defined, it’s hard to actually live up to them or know if we’ve successfully arrived at them. Even if we see progress toward these ideas, we wonder, “Am I rich enough? Am I happy enough? Is she beautiful enough,” and we’re never quite satisfied.
In contrast, the ought self is usually defined specifically. For example, “Don’t lie to other people.” This is much more clear to determine if we’ve arrived at the ought self or not for a particular situation.
Though this research may help us gain more understanding and awareness regarding our own regrets, none of this means this is how you SHOULD experience your regret. The research didn’t find that ALL people experience regret this way.
All situations are unique, and all of us experience things differently. I introduce this framework not to tell you how you should feel, but instead to give you a better template for understanding your regret.
When is Regret Destructive?
Regret is destructive in a number of situations:
When we imagine alternative situations that are unrealistically better than our current situation we experience regret.
The problem here is that we believe the cause of our regret is our decision, when in fact the issue is our imagination.
For example, John moves to Japan, and as a result experiences culture shock. John’s mind becomes hyper-focused on the challenges of Japan, and begins to focus only on the positive aspects back home.
In this state of mind, John’s comparison of the two situations is unrealistic and unfair. He is comparing a darkened version of Japan to an idealized version of home. In response, John begins to regret his decision to move and has an urge to move home abruptly.
If John moves back home and the decision is based only on this unfair comparison, it’s likely that once back home, John will quickly be reminded of the challenges of home. He will be reminded of his initial urge to move to Japan, and might even have an urge to move back to Japan. John will probably regret his decision to move back home.
Until John realizes that it’s not his decision that’s the issue, but his unfair comparisons (his imagination), he’ll keep going in circles.
The world is big and opportunities are endless. This is good and bad.
Because some of us have so many choices and a large variety of realistic opportunities, it means we’re always missing out on something: something more exciting, more fun, more whatever.
Missing out on other things isn’t necessarily the problem though. It’s where our primary focus is that determines if it becomes a problem for us or not.
For example, Jill moves to Japan, and begins imagining all the other things she could be doing instead: “I could be back home starting a side business instead of putting all this time into studying Japanese, I could be in France with my college friends, I could be in Ecuador with Judy, I could be . . .”
Jill’s focus on what she is missing out on is endless and it begins eating at her. She begins to regret her decision to move to Japan.
The problem isn’t that she’s imagining unrealistic alternatives, because of all of these alternatives are possible. The problem is that Jill can’t have it all at one time and her focus is on trying to have it all.
When our focus is constantly on what we’re missing, we can easily fall into the “whack-a-mole strategy.” As soon as we go over there to avoid missing it, we’re instantly missing what we used to have here. We’re constantly running back and forth trying to whack all the moles at the same time.
Though it’s helpful to think about other possible opportunities in order to judge whether they’re more in line with our values and long-term goals or not, it becomes destructive when we’re focused more on the limitless choices, the “what could have been” more than our present situation.
Illusional Ought Self
Sometimes what we think is our own ought self, is actually a creation from someone else in our lives.
For example, John regrets moving to Japan and notices a vague and perpetual sense of guilt for living so far away from home. John calls back home every week and is constantly asked by his parents, “When are you going to come home,” “How long are you going to live in Japan?”
John is likely experiencing regret and guilt due to the expectation his parents have for him to return home. Perhaps, deep down, John doesn’t feel like living away from his parents is wrong. And at the same time, he wants his parents to be happy. With the pressure he gets each week from his parents, the boundary between his values and theirs becomes blurred.
Living up to others’ expectations rather than ours is common and not always easy to identify. Either way, the regret can hit us just as hard as if we’re not living up to our own ought self.
Beating Ourselves Up
Regret can easily lead to feeling guilt and shame. Just like regret, guilt can be helpful and unhelpful. Shame, on the other hand, is always unhelpful.
If you’re experiencing guilt along with your regret, it’s helpful if your behavior was objectively wrong. It’s a chance to learn from that.
However, if you’re experiencing guilt because you have unrealistically high standards, then it’s not helpful.
Shame is just beating ourselves up. While guilt is focused more on our behavior, shame takes it to a more personal, unneeded level. Shame says YOU are flawed; there’s something wrong with you.
This is not helpful at all. When we start to tell ourselves we’re flawed and we believed it, we start to believe our situation is permanent. We become stuck as long as we continue to believe shameful thoughts.
What Next? Using Regret Productively
So, you moved to Japan and now you regret it. Now what?
It’s a common perception that regret is bad. We’re given the advice to stop regretting the past; what’s done is done. And we value the idealistic “Never have any regrets.”
Though nice sounding, it’s not very practical. And even more important, it’s not in our best interests to get rid of regret completely.
Regret tells us that we’ve made a decision that led us to an undesirable situation, and most likely because it wasn’t in line with what we value. This is important. If we lose regret completely, then we’re wandering through this world without a compass. With no sense of self.
Regret is a window into our values. When we feel regret, if we examine it, we can learn more about our values, and we can learn more about our behavior and choices that lead us towards or away from those values.
Feelings, Thoughts, Urges
The Cognitive Triangle is a concept core to a therapy called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), which is very helpful in processing your reaction to situations.
The triangle brings awareness to how our thoughts, feelings, and actions all interact and influence one another.
An important thing to remember is the more intense our emotions are in any moment, the easier it is for our thoughts, feelings, and actions to be blurred. As a result, we can quickly jump to behavior.
For example, if a large bear walks through your door right now, chances are you’ll experience fear and panic; maybe have a thought, “I could die”; and you run through the other door to escape it.
In life or death situations this is very helpful. We don’t have time to process how we think and feel. We need to act now.
The majority of the time, however, we’re not in a life or death situation, but we’re quickly jumping to action like we’re in danger. This is the perfect recipe for even more regret.
So, before you quickly book your plane ticket home and leave Japan, maybe this is a great opportunity to do some self-research using the Cognitive Triangle.
I recommend writing down these thoughts, feelings and urges when you’re calm and especially after a wave of intense emotions. The more intense the emotions, the more we have to learn.
As you identify your thoughts, start to question how realistic or unrealistic they are. Do any of your thoughts fit into the destructive categories I mentioned earlier?
Most of the time our thoughts are just junk, unrealistic, and/or just unhelpful. It’s very normal. However, it’s important for us to be aware of them so we don’t react and behave according to them.
As you identify the junk, unrealistic thoughts, you can start to build up counter thoughts, more realistic thoughts to armor up for the next emotional wave:
- “I can never make the right decision” –> “I’m doing the best I can and can learn from each one”
- “Japan is a terrible place” –> “There are some things I don’t like about Japan and there are some positive things here too”
It’s difficult to find counter thoughts to our junk thoughts when we’re emotionally triggered. That’s why it’s important to do this when your calm.
Make this process part of your daily routine. You can do it on your commute to work, after you wake up, or before you go to bed. Also, consistency is more important than the quantity of time spent on it.
It’s important to remember that even though regret is painful, it’s usually there for a good reason. Though the temptation is to get rid of it fast and for good, without regret, we lose an important compass.
Another important thing to remember is trying to locate any unhelpful aspects of regret. Though we don’t want to lose our ability to feel regret altogether, we need to attend to the aspects of regret that are based on unrealistic or destructive thoughts.
During this time it can also be helpful to separate what you do have control over from what you don’t have control over. Often times when we feel regret, we are hyperfocused on things we can no longer control. Though there are likely things you can’t change in your situation, there’s probably plenty that you can change, no matter how big or how small those things are.
The last thing to remember is to be easy on yourself and give yourself a break. The world is flexible and impermanent. If your regret is strong, remember there’s always professional help. I offer online counseling in Okinawa, Japan, and California. You’re always welcome.