Having regret or anxiety over something you did but didn’t want to do, is a really unpleasant feeling. But it’s also a really common one. Let’s talk about it. I want to talk about why we act in ways that make us unhappy later on, and what we can do to help ourselves.
Why Do We Experience Anxiety?
The feeling of regret and post-action anxiety is in technical terms called “cognitive dissonance”.
The term cognitive dissonance is used to describe the mental discomfort that results from holding two conflicting beliefs, values, or attitudes. People tend to seek consistency in their attitudes and perceptions, so this conflict causes feelings of unease or discomfort.
This inconsistency between what people believe and how they behave motivates people to engage in actions that will help minimize feelings of discomfort. People attempt to relieve this tension in different ways, such as by rejecting, explaining away, or avoiding new information.Verywellmind.com
In short, we experience anxiety and regret over our own actions when we act in opposition to our values or beliefs. For example, if I believe that it is bad to drink alcohol because it is harmful to my body, but still commit the act of drinking lots of alcohol, I will experience regret and anxiety. The same goes for food intake (e.g. veganism or weight-loss goals), moral and ethical behavior (e.g. cheating), honesty (e.g. lying), and other self-commitments.
I believe most of us can experience anxiety and regret without having any sort of mental disorder. But of course, there are those who have medical conditions that lead to unreasonable anxiety levels. In this article, however, I am not addressing those with medical conditions.
Why Did We act Like That?
In many instances, I think the lack of inhibition and self-control is the reason for behaving against our beliefs and values.
Things that contribute to a lowered level of inhibition can be different types of drugs, high-stress levels, emotional disturbances, and external factors such as pressure from other people or the need to fit in socially. Many times, it’s the lack of putting importance in the future. We are living in the present. We are doing what we want to do at that very moment, because the present is so alive, so real, while the future is so far away. The future doesn’t even exist yet. So why should we give up what we want now for something that is not as real?
It’s no wonder why many people feel the most anxiety and regret after “a night out” (or in), while under the influence of alcohol and other substances. Other factors such as emotional distress often lead to the use of drugs, which in turn leads to lowered inhibition. For most, it is not the use of substances in itself but the behavior associated with it. Such as behaving badly socially (violence, ethical misconducts, and disregard for other people’s well-being), but also things such as having a smoke or eating a bunch of unhealthy food even though one promises oneself to eat healthily. These things of course also happen without being under the influence. Being very stressed, sad, heartbroken, emotionally down, and etc can also make us behave in similar ways.
Why Do We Feel Regret or Anxiety Later?
Tragically enough, I think we experience anxiety and regret because we have an ego, the need for a positive self-concept, and the concept of time.
I know it may sound a bit “out there”, but let me explain.
The ego & Self
Our ego and self-concept is a mental and social construct. It exists only in our and other people’s minds, in our memories to be more exact. It is not really a “real” thing. To function as social creatures, we develop concepts of ourselves and other people. We can see them as avatars. The ego includes things such as our self-identity:
- Name and age
- Ethical and social identity
- Gender and sexuality
- Social relations to others
- Moral and ethical standards that we ourselves and others expect from us
But the truth is, that all of those things are made up entirely by the human mind. They are social and mental constructs.
We experience it to be real though. We expect ourselves and those around us to “hold up” to their pre-determined personalities at any given moment. That’s why we say things such as “I don’t feel like myself”, or “He/she isn’t acting like himself”, or “That isn’t his/her style“. We expect continuity and for things to stay the same because we want to be able to trust our mental models of the world.
And from this, comes the dissonance we feel when our behavior does not match our concept of ourselves, our ego, or our self-concept.
The Illusion of Linear Time
This is perhaps one of my more unconventional theories, but here it goes.
I believe that if we did not have the concept of time as linear, of a past, present, and future, we would be so much freer. We can dissolve the feeling of regret and anxiety by only being in the present. Let go of every other thing.
The entire concept of ourselves exists because we believe “ourselves” to be something that exists over time. But we do not really exist in that way, because time is not linear. We only ever have this exact present moment. Even when the future comes, that very moment will still only ever show itself as the now.
Time feels real to people. But it doesn’t even exist, according to quantum physics. “There is no time variable in the fundamental equations that describe the world,” theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli tells Quartz.Quartz article
Therefore, the concept of egos is an illusion that we take too seriously. We are not a self that persists over time. We are just existence itself, just as every other thing in the entire universe exists in this very moment. It is all just one gigantic pool of everything. We do not really need to consider the past, because the past does not exist currently. And with it, the past descriptions of yourself and how you should behave are gone as well. The same with the future. The future does not exist, so we do not need to at the moment feel anxiety for the future.
I get that it is not practical to fully 100% live fully with these beliefs. But it is practical to remind yourself of this when you experience negative feelings, that it doesn’t really matter. You are allowed to let go of whatever story or standards you are holding yourself up to.
Having anxiety about what you’ve done, because you feel like you need to hold yourself up to some arbitrary standard, is to take the illusion of time and self too seriously.
I don’t know if this made enough sense. But once you really understand where I’m coming from, I think you will agree, and you will see that any and all negative feelings stem from taking the illusion of life too seriously.
Recommended further reading: Why nothing really matters and how we are all just energy
How To Make ourselves feel better
Now, there are different methods people use to make themselves feel better after the fact. Sometimes though, I feel like people want to punish themselves a little for bad decisions. And I guess you can do that if you want, but that’s not very loving towards yourself or very productive either.
Things you can do to reduce anxiety or regret:
- Accept what happened. Just fully try to accept it. It is what it is. You cannot change the past.
- Forgive yourself. Just think that it was a learning experience for you. Now you know better.
- Remind yourself that you don’t need to take your ego too seriously. You are only human. Humans act in not-the-perfect ways sometimes. It’s fun! It makes life nuanced. You do whatever you want, and it is 100% right as long as it doesn’t hurt someone else.
- If you have hurt someone, reach out and apologize sincerly. Take action to make things right.
- Remind yourself that time doesn’t exist. The past is no longer. It is gone. Don’t dwell on non-existent things.
- Distract yourself, and focus on something else.
Other common methods that people deal with cognitive dissonance are to explain it away or lean on some other even more valued belief.
It doesn’t matter in the end what method you use though. Anxiety and regret come from the mind, and sometimes it’s okay to just accept what we feel, and then move on regardless.