Imagine you’re driving your car, taking directions from a GPS, but not an impassive one – this GPS has a grudging attitude, reminding you of lost opportunities and past mistakes. “You will arrive at your destination in 17 minutes,” it might say, “But you would already be there if you had just taken that left turn on Seaver Street that I told you to take an hour ago, when there was still a chance to get on the highway, what a shame!” 

Such a remark might offer comic relief, but if the GPS insisted on this line of commentary throughout the trip, always comparing the present reality with a better one you could have had, then you’d be in trouble. How could you focus on the road ahead – how could you focus on “what is,” if you were constantly being reminded of “what could have been?”

Of course, we would fire any GPS that harped on the past, but we humans do it all the time. When a wrong turn occurs, the GPS says “Rerouting…” and promptly forgets what happened, but the driver remembers the mistake and curses it and looks to assign blame. I’ve even heard a driver say, in regard to a GPS’s emotionless revisions, “Don’t listen to her! She acts like everything is OK, but we shouldn’t have missed that turn!”

In a situation like driving, it’s easy to see how regret might interfere with our concentration, making the whole effort more stressful and dangerous, but this is no less true in other parts of life. If we stop comparing our present reality with what might have been possible, if we stop comparing “what is” with “what could have been,” we shed a great weight. When we’re not carrying the baggage of our missed opportunities and unfulfilled expectations, we can move more easily forward.

But how, practically, can we avoid this type of comparison? How can we stop clinging to the five-hundred-pound anchor of “what we wanted” or “what we hoped for” or “what we expected” or “what we could have had?”

In one view, it requires deep inner change – we might need to go to therapy, have a spiritual awakening, or be enlightened by a transformative crisis. In another view, it simply requires technique – we need to develop a mental strategy for nipping comparison in the bud.

What actually happens in the mind when a person clings to an unfulfilled expectation? What are the mechanics of the thought process of regret? I’ll speak for myself as a visual thinker. For me, regret often takes the form of seeing – in my mind’s eye – an image of the situation I wanted. I’ll switch my inner gaze back and forth between this beautiful image and an uglier image of my current situation. To escape regret means, quite literally, to stop flipping between these two images. It means to stop staring so intently at the image of what I wanted, to stop trying so hard to ascertain its details, to stop letting those details tantalize me. 

The mental process of comparison is much the same whether I am thinking of a major unfulfilled promise in my life or a mundane question of where I could have gone to dinner one evening. I might see an image of myself as the research scholar I could have become if I hadn’t dropped out of grad school twenty-five years ago, and when I relinquish this image, understanding that it never came to pass, I feel a sense of loss. Or I might see an image of myself eating dinner at a salad joint I had wanted to go to, though I’m still stuck at home, hungry, and the restaurant is now closed. In both cases, the weighty one and the trivial one, I’m doing the same thing, seeing an image of what was possible, as if projected on a screen, and then feeling sad as the screen is pulled away, revealing the present reality behind it.

It can be easier to practice non-comparison when the matter involved is trivial – like the dinner outing that I missed. But even in these trivial cases, the benefits of relinquishing comparison can be extraordinary. 

Let’s talk about salad then. The reason I had become fixated on getting this particular salad the other night was that I had been waiting to eat for two hours. In the early evening, I had decided go out and grab a quick meal involving lettuce. There was no food in the house. I planned to bring something back for my partner who was also home, stuck on a conference call. But just as I was about to leave, I asked him if I should wait for him and he said yes. The minutes dragged on, turning into an hour, and then another hour, and he didn’t give me any signal that I should go without him. By now I was “starving” but the salad place was closed along with many of the other quick-eat options nearby. 

It was an eminently manageable situation, but in the moment, I was feeling hungry, I was upset with myself for complicating the plan, I was upset with my partner for not releasing me from the obligation to wait, and I was upset that my restaurant-of-choice was now closed.

An insight came to my aid. I realized that all of my negative feelings hinged on a particular image. The totality of my upset was rooted in a specific mental picture in which I was happily eating my desired salad. If I just managed to stop gazing at this image of the evening as I had wanted it to go – if I just stopped seeing myself consuming that now-unobtainable salad – then all those negative emotions faded away. I could begin from the present moment. I could still go out. The options were fewer but there were still places to get food. 

The “extraordinary” benefit of non-comparison was that I probably avoided an argument with my partner. It was precisely the kind of volatile situation where a few negative comments from me and a few negative comments from him could have turned into a quarrel. But I didn’t complain about my hunger or the long wait or the miscommunication – not because I was holding back, but because the impulse wasn’t there. The impulse would have come from imagining what I had hoped for, but I stopped imagining that. In a sense, I practiced a GPS’s idea of stateless “rerouting,” moving onto the next choice with no memory of the recent past. We found a different place that was open late and had a fine time.

The morning when I started this essay, I woke up slowly, had trouble bringing any order to my long task list, attempted a few things but couldn’t build momentum anywhere. This essay didn’t take shape as readily as I wanted, and beautiful weather made me feel I was wasting the day indoors when I should have been outside. Although I wasn’t in any great distress, I had the feeling that I was not being my best self, wasn’t doing my best work, wasn’t having a great morning – everything was off track.

In my mind, I saw another version of myself as I wanted to be, a version who would have gotten up earlier and been more productive, a version who would have seen the task list and immediately known how to handle it, a version who would have finished something by now and already gone outside to enjoy the sunny day.

Why do we compare? Why do we feel such a compulsion to gaze at our mental picture of what might have happened or who we could have been?

We know that the mere act of imagining something can’t make it true, but perhaps we’re trying to enjoy – through fantasy – a taste of the thing we didn’t actually get. And perhaps we think that by engaging in this fantasy we will learn a lesson or discover some principle that will help us obtain what we want the next time around. If the pain of regret might force us to do better next time, then perhaps we think that by intensifying our pain by focusing on it, we will intensify our motivation too? If we’re too quick to relinquish expectations, perhaps we’ll be pushed and pulled around by life and never reach our goals. Keeping an image in mind of what we want – or what we wanted – might seem necessary to prevent our dreams from being forgotten, lost, ignored. Remembering who we hope to be is a way to become that person, perhaps.

As for my inefficient morning, it seemed to me that keeping a picture of my better self in mind – the well-organized and super-productive one – would help me channel that person. But practically, this image did not function as a source of inspiration, it functioned as an amplifier of stress. As for my salad dinner, I knew that clinging to an image of it wasn’t going to restore the missed opportunity, but maybe there was a lesson about planning I could have learned? Maybe there was a lesson about communication?

It’s true, we can find value in setbacks big and small if we see them as opportunities to learn. But regret is not a great way to learn. To the extent that grasping at an image of “what could have been” makes us feel regret, it is probably not imparting the wisdom we seek. It is just weighing us down and draining our energy. I think I’ve been able to finish this essay today because I saved my energy yesterday. At some point yesterday, I stopped staring at that image of my better self, I stopped feeling bad that I wasn’t further along in writing, and so when I approached the project today, it was not laden with remnants of dismay.

As for learning from missed opportunities – we learn the most when we feel awake, refreshed, and ready. To feel that way, we need to free ourselves from the burden of comparison. Try to conjure an image of everything you want right now – everything you hoped for that didn’t happen or hasn’t yet happened – and then try to see this image dissolving, fading away until it has entirely vanished. Imagine you are not responsible for achieving those things any more, you are not responsible for making that picture real.

No biggie, this was just a thought experiment and you haven’t lost anything. But if there was some sense of freedom in it, you could try it again.

It might turn out that if we stop constantly comparing the present to “what we want” we will then have the energy and clarity of mind to manifest our true ideals more fully. It might turn out that if we stop imagining who we wished we had become, we will then attain the freedom to grow.

If we were to simply reroute, and not regret, what then might be possible for us? ■

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