Woulda, coulda, shoulda: The haunting regret of failing our ideal selves.

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There are, according to most of the old and respected philosophers, two sides to every one of us: our real selves and our ideal selves. The first behaves as we do and the other as we would want to do ideally.  And it’s not just ethics and morally good behaviors. Forsaken dreams. Romantic interests not pursued. Securing a job near home rather than an adventurous position overseas.   Whichever it is our most enduring regrets are the ones that stem from our failure to live up to our ideal selves, according to new research.

What the researchers say: The researchers have found people are haunted more by regrets about failing to fulfill their hopes, goals and aspirations than by regrets about failing to fulfill their duties, obligations and responsibilities.   Their research was published in the journal Emotion. It builds on the idea that three elements make up a person’s sense of self: the actual, ideal and the ought selves. The actual self is made up of the attributes a person believes they possess. The ideal self is the attributes they would ideally like to possess, such as hopes, goals, aspirations or wishes. The ought self is the person they feel they should have been based on duties, obligations and responsibilities.   They surveyed hundreds of participants through the course of six studies, describing the differences between the ought and ideal selves, and asking them to list and categorize their regrets based on these descriptions.

The participants said they experienced regrets about their ideal self far more often (72 percent versus 28 percent). More than half mentioned more ideal-self regrets than ought-self regrets when asked to list their regrets in life so far. And when asked to name their single biggest regret in life, 76 percent of participants mentioned a regret about not fulfilling their ideal self.   Why do ideal-self failures spark such enduring regret? The expectations of the ought self are usually more concrete and involve specific rules—such as how to behave at a funeral—and so are easier to fulfill. But ideal-related regrets tend to be more general: Be a good parent, be a good mentor. “Well, what does that mean, really?” the lead researcher said. “There aren’t clear guideposts. And you can always do more.”   “The research has practical implications,” he said. “First, we often assume we first need inspiration before we can strive to achieve our ideals. But a significant amount of psychological research shows that’s not true. Inspiration arises from engaging in the activity.”

And people often fail to achieve their ideal goals because they’re worried about how it will look to others. For example, a person might want to learn how to sing but feel they could never let others hear how bad they are.   “People are more charitable than we think and also don’t notice us nearly as much as we think,” he said. “If that’s what holding you back—the fear of what other people will think and notice—then think a little more about just doing it.”

So, what? As Shakespeare said, “Function gets smothered in surmise.” Whether making a decision, or taking up singing, or applying for promotion we do worse when we take time to “weigh pros and cons.” The encouragement we need is always from people we admire or who are supportive of us. That makes us feel that it is safe to do that which we think our ideal self would do. If we feel safe our gut will guide us to the right decision or the right action. Praise for trying makes us believe we can do the thing we feared doing—thereby setting up what is called “an island of confidence” from which to further grow and explore.

What now? We need to train people to trust their gut and put far less emphasis on encouraging them to carefully weigh the pros and cons—which many studies have shown only leads to bad decisions and indecisive actions. And we need to be far more generous with our praise.