“Unlike the main emotions we have discussed so far—anger, fear, guilt, shame—regret is not an emotion we are likely to take a formal inventory of in Step 4. Still, regret is going to come up. It has to. We have made a mess of our lives, and regret is one of the emotional consequences of that. We were like a tornado roaring our way through the lives of others, as the Big Book so graphically describes it (p. 82). In Step 4 we are looking at the destruction we left behind. How can we not regret what we see?
One of the reasons we may not focus separately on regret is that regret tends to surface in conjunction with other, more pressing emotions. We may be examining an incident of anger where we lashed out at our teenage daughter and mistreated her verbally and perhaps even physically. We experience guilt, remorse, shame, and—mixed in with these—regret. Yet, because the other emotions are not only more pressing but also more intense, they will tend to overshadow regret. At times we may even conflate it with them, especially with guilt and remorse, which like regret leave us feeling sorry and apologetic.
So even if we don’t take a formal inventory of it, we will do well to examine the cases of regret that do come up, whatever other emotions or defects of character we may be considering. We can’t afford to ignore any troublesome feelings. Our goal is to “clear the wreckage of the past” (Big Book, p. 164), and regret is very much a part of that wreckage. Examining the emotion is part of the process that will release us from it.
The Big Book promises a time will come when “We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it” (p. 83). As newcomers, it may be hard for us to see how this could be possible. Yet AA experience shows that, like the other promises, this one too is being fulfilled among us, “sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly” (p. 84). We are assured that, “It will always materialize if we work for it.” Taking stock of our regrets is part of that work. As with the other emotions, however, there is a great deal of misunderstanding and confusion regarding regret. If our inventory is to bear fruit, then, we need to develop a good, practical understanding of it.
Regret as a Concern-based Construal
On the view we are exploring, regret is one of a set of emotions underpinned by a sense of loss (others are sadness, grief, disappointment, and sometimes, depression and self-pity). In the case of regret, the loss is generally experienced as a missed opportunity or an unrealized possibility. Something that (otherwise) could have been is not. Something that (otherwise) could be will not be. We construe a situation (an action or omission, an event, an occurrence or non-occurrence, a condition or state of affairs) as unfortunate in that it contravenes some good we are concerned with, contrasting it all the while with what we perceive to be a more fortunate circumstance. We see the bad that is in terms of the good it might have been. If I regret that I became a lawyer and not a doctor, that my marriage broke up, that I didn’t have children, that I didn’t take care of my health, or that I didn’t pursue one dream or another, the implication in each case is that things could have been different (and better). “If only” and “I wish” convey the dominant sentiment.
Structurally, regret differs from the other emotions we have treated in two respects. First, it doesn’t have a defining or master concern in terms of which we perceive a situation. Second, it doesn’t have a consequent concern that motivates reparative action. In anger, we perceive an offense to our concern for justice or fairness and we want to punish the offender. In fear, we perceive a threat to our concern for safety, security, or wellbeing and we wish to protect ourselves or those we care about. In guilt, we perceive ourselves at fault in having transgressed against our concern to be morally righteous and we wish to be relieved of our blameworthiness. In remorse, we perceive ourselves at fault in having transgressed against our concern to do what is morally right and we wish to atone for our action. In shame, we perceive ourselves to be (or appear to be) unworthy with respect to a concern we base our worth on and we wish to cease being (or appearing to be) unworthy. In regret, on the other hand, we perceive a loss by the unfortunate contravention of any one of a broad number of concerns and we simply wish that it had not been the case. The wish is not actionable. The event is a fait accompli. There is nothing we can do about it.
. . .
Emotions arise out of situations in response to our perception (construal) of how those situations affect the things we care about (concerns). We have explained regret as the perception of an unfortunate situation in terms of how it could have been different. We have distinguished between those regrettable situations where we have no choice (non-agent regret) and therefore are not morally responsible, and those where we do (agent regret) and are. Where choice is involved, we have further distinguished between those attributable to error in which, again, we are not morally liable, and those attributable to defects of character and emotion, in which we are. The latter we have parsed further according to whether the situation is perceived as unfortunate when it occurs because it contravenes a then-existing concern, or subsequently as the result of a shifting concern and the new perception it affords.
These various considerations underscore the fact that, in taking inventory of our regrets, we need to examine each instance of the emotion in terms of the relevant circumstances. In doing this, we want to address a number of questions. Two of these apply generally to all emotions: How are we looking at the situation? What personal concerns do we perceive it to affect? The rest apply specifically to regret: How is the situation unfortunate? Is our regret the result of a situation over which we had no control? Is it the result of a mistake on our part? Can it be traced to a particular defect of character or emotion? Was it concurrent with the situation or is it the product of a subsequent change in the way we view and value things? These questions will help us to determine whether our regret rightly reflects its situation, laying the basis for identifying any defects that may be operative.
. . .
Emotional Sobriety: Freedom from Regret
This is the reason for our inventory’s focus on the virtues as the prescribed remedy. The virtues correct what our character defects distort: what we see and what we value, how we feel and how we act. They correct the defects which cause us to do things we ought to regret, and the defects which cause us to regret the wrong things or the right things but wrongly (for the wrong reason, in the wrong ways).
Like defects of character and the emotional and behavioral responses these generate, virtues are situation-specific: they work in distinct ways in distinct situations. Virtues which are corrective of the defects which cause us to act in ways we regret are corrective of the concern-based construals paradigmatic of this emotion. We will briefly outline three of these virtues.
. . .
In its comparison of a moral with a business inventory cited at the start of this chapter, the Big Book makes the point that “If the owner of the business is to be successful, he cannot fool himself about values” (p. 64). Unfortunately, that is exactly what we alcoholics did. We fooled ourselves about values. The “flaws in our make-up which caused our failure” were all tied up with our wrong view of what really mattered in life. We placed the satisfactions of our instincts and our self-centered concerns ahead of everything, and everything ahead of God. But that didn’t work, did it? Hence our total bankruptcy. Hence our regret.
That is why a spiritual awakening that reorients our heart and thereby shifts and reorders our concerns is the solution to our problems with regret as it is to those with every other emotion. It is what enables us to value goods rightly—from a spiritual, God-centered perspective—and thus to discern their true worth. We care for the right things, for the right reason, at the right time, in the right manner, to the right degree, and in their right relation to each other. Such rightness is the basis of right emotion and action. It is the foundation of emotional sobriety. It is intrinsic to virtue.
If right seeing and caring are intrinsic to virtue, so are wrong seeing and caring inherent in our defects of character. In the next part of this work, we focus more directly on these. They are the focus of column 5 in our inventory guide.”
– From Part II: Emotions, Chapter 12: Regret, pp. 229–230, 242–243, 246–247, 253
For more PTP4 Excerpts, please click on link.