Continuing the Conversation: Managing Regrets

By Anne Figert and Neil Baum

Editor’s Note: This is the second Continuing the Conversation piece by Figert and Baum. In this special on going collaborative series, Figert and Baum enter into a conversation about mental health challenges we face at Jesuit colleges and universities. How do you manage any regret you might feel in the work you do or in your life more broadly? Who do you rely on for help?

 “Regrets, I've had a few
But then again, too few to mention”
Frank Sinatra, My Way, Reprise Records, 1969

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Neil: Students and faculty are frequently confronted with a decision that must be made. They are at the proverbial fork in the road and have to make a choice which fork to take.  Most of us will make an assessment and then make a selection on which side of the road to take. Perhaps we use the Ben Franklin method of drawing a line on a piece of paper and put the pros on one side of the paper and the cons on the other.  Or perhaps we have taken a course at Loyola University, New Orleans like I did on Critical Decision Making where each option is weighted and a more rational conclusion is reached  Even with these approaches, it is not uncommon to make a mistake and we start the “shoulda\coulda” or the “if only I…” self-talk that only makes the regret of not taking the other side of the fork in the road more painful.

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Anne: As an academic and as a person, I like to think that I make logical or rational decisions. That is what I have been trained to do as a scholar and also what my parents tried to get me to do when I was growing up. I was supposed to be the logical lawyer type in the family. I remember having huge philosophical arguments over simple things like the merits of eating peas (I was against) where to attend college (I turned down a full scholarship at a very good university) and what kind of career I should pursue (I didn’t become the lawyer). I look back fondly now on these matters but they were hard and complicated at the time. The funny thing is that in terms of huge decisions both personally and professionally, I have learned that I don’t trust logic as much as feeling. Since you brought up Frank Sinatra, I am going to go with one of my favorite quotes from the Star Trek franchise. In one of the episodes of Star Trek Voyager, Captain Kathryn Janeway states:” You can use logic to justify almost anything. That's its power and its flaw.” Star Trek: Voyager, "Prime Factors" (1995).  This quote has stuck with me. When I make a huge decision, I try to listen to my heart because even though logically I know what I should do, I also know what I feel I should do. Sometimes it is doing “the right thing” even though there are negative consequences to me personally or professionally … but I don’t always do “the right thing.” As I stated above, I like to think that I make good and logical decisions, but I don’t always perform at that level and that is the same for most people. So, as you state above, what happens when we make the wrong decision?  Sometimes we know it is a bad decision when we make it and other times we look back in retrospect regret the decision we made.

Neil: Regrets and the GPS

 If you travel with a global positioning system (GPS) in your automobile, it’s likely you’ve had this happen: Your GPS is programmed to get you to your destination in a safe and reliable way until you miss a turn or an exit on the freeway. You go straight instead of turning where the program wants you to turn and in an irritated, calculated voice, the GPS responds with “recalculating route.”

It’s amazing how human the equipment sounds when you’ve gone against their recommendation. Maybe this happens as a student, too. You make plans for spring break including buying a non-refundable airline ticket, and the day before you are to leave the professor states that if you miss class you will receive a zero and will have the grade you deserve reduced by one letter. You now have to recalculate your route.  Or you may be a professor and one of your colleagues is sick or leaves and the dean assigns you to take over the class with no opportunity to prepare for the class… have to recalculate your route.  (BTW, this happened to my professor of marketing and he was able to recalculate the route and did a fantastic job with minimal preparation.)

It’s possible, however, that there is a good reason for taking a new path instead of the familiar trail. Maybe you’ve been going the distance in your studies and using the same route or skills that you learned in high school or in previous classes. Maybe, it’s time to change the direction or simply to recalculate your route.

Anne: So, I was just faced with the outcome of one of those Spring Break decisions from a student. The student had to recalculate their route and it involved missing an exam. Now, like most people, I like to be asked and not told and this student did actually request an earlier time but had made their decision to miss class. I didn’t answer right away and took my time to answer because I didn’t want to sound as irritated as I was. I had given the class fair warning that they needed to be in class and not leave early for Spring Break. I was glad that I responded less emotionally the following morning with some options and considerably less irritation.

Operating in the world with instant technology like GPS and email means that we don’t have time to think through our words and deeds. Remember actually looking at the route on a map before we took the car journey? Remember life before email? The immediacy of today’s technology makes it hard to process feelings and emotions. Regrets? I have found that not answering emails right away has saved me from some of those regrets.  I especially try to be more careful answering students’ email because I know that they are under a lot of stress. However, I have also told them that unless it is an emergency I won’t answer right away on evenings and weekends. This helps me.

Neil: I was a member of a team in the management class and one of the students on our team failed to pull his fair share of the workload.  I wrote a scathing email complaining that the other members were having to take up the slack of his failure to participate.  I followed a suggestion given to me by my mother who always recommended that before you say some critical or negative or do something you just might regret, sleep on it before taking action.  I think that whenever you are at the fork in the road and you must recalculate your route, going to bed, getting a good night’s sleep and then pulling the trigger on tapping the send button, will prevent you from saying or writing something in anger that you may regret.  (BTW,  I learned that the student on our team had a death in the family and the professor excused his involvement on the project. I was very delighted that I listened to my mother before recalculating my route!)  

Coming Soon: In our next blog, we will discuss sleep deprivation and its relationship to stress on the college campus.     

Anne Figert is a professor and chair of the sociology department at Loyola University Chicago. Neil Baum is  retired physician and current student at Loyola University New Orleans.

The cover photo is featured courtesy of Pexel.