How Regret Can Help You Find Your Ideal Self.

This article was originally published here July 27, 2019.

How often have you wished you could give your younger self some advice?

According to a researcher at Clemson University, many people have this desire several times a week.

For many, this is anything but futile. In fact, it can help people become their “ideal self,” according to Dr. Robin Kowalski, a professor in Clemson University’s psychology department.

Kowalski’s paper in the Journal of Social Psychology, “If I knew then what I know now: Advice to my younger self,” analyzes the results of two studies of more than 400 people over the age of 30.

The results reveal the nature of regret, how people can use it to self-actualize, and what areas people tend to fixate on in their later years, she said.

While some people think you shouldn’t dwell on the past, Kowalksi says otherwise.

“My findings would suggest otherwise as long as you’re not obsessing about it,” she said.

One third of the participants in the study spontaneously think about advice they would offer their younger selves at least once a week, which is a significant number, she noted.

These people — and those who may think about the past a little less — can benefit because it helps them conceptualize and even realize their “ideal self,” which reflects who the person thinks they would like to be, she explained.

“Following the advice helped participants overcome regret,” she said. “When participants followed their advice in the present, they were much more likely to say that their younger selves would be proud of the person they are now.”

Kowalski also found that almost half of the participants said the advice they would offer their younger selves influenced their description of their future selves, whether that was “successful and financially stable” or “old and decrepit.”

According to Kowalski, the top three areas people focus on when giving advice to their younger selves were education, self-worth, and relationships.

Advice tied to education often was individuals urging themselves to return to or finish school and many participants offered a timeline, such as “get master’s while in your 20s” or “finish college in four years.”

Advice related to self-worth, such as “be yourself” or “think through all options before making a decision,” tended to be more inspirational and corrective, she reported.

Kowalski said all of this advice, particularly related to relationships, can lead to corrective behavior.

“My favorite piece of advice in the whole paper came from a guy who said ‘Do. Not. Marry. Her.,’” Kowalski says. “That’s valuable for the person that he is now because he can reflect and have a better idea of what he’s looking for in an ideal mate, plus he can offer advice to others.”

Kowalski says her findings are consistent with research on the “reminiscence bump,” which is the tendency for older adults to have increased recollection for events that occurred during their adolescence and early adulthood. Most of the advice study participants offered to themselves was tied to a pivotal event that had occurred between the ages of 10 and 30.

“These are critical years. People go through high school and college, get married, have kids and start their careers,” she said. “On the one hand you can say, ‘Duh, of course these are important years,’ but when we separated positive pivotal events and negative pivotal events, almost all of them fell into that time period. It’s interesting to find clear evidence to support the reminiscence bump.”

“There’s a real emotional pull to this topic and it’s what drew me to it in the first place,” she continued. “These are two of my favorite studies I’ve ever done because everyone can relate to it and everyone has asked themselves this question.”

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