Change of Perspective

Musings on Writing, Reading, and Life Narratives

Fiction writers and literary critics speak of point of view. Social scientists are more likely to discuss perspective. But both of these terms refer to essentially the same construct: the consciousness behind the perception and narration of experience. Each individual’s point of view is unique, and point of view shapes the stories people tell to themselves and to others about themselves and their relationships with their environment. The same event narrated from two different perspectives will produce two different stories.

A change of perspective can expand our perception and reframe our thinking about our experiences. We can all benefit from an occasional change of perspective.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Reminiscence & Regret

Psychology - New Year's Resolutions - Regret - Mental Health - New York Times

This New York Times article by Benedict Carey is about the person you could have been (or could have become), what psychologists call lost possible selves.
Over the past decade and a half, psychologists have studied how regrets — large and small, recent and distant — affect people’s mental well-being. They have shown, convincingly though not surprisingly, that ruminating on paths not taken is an emotionally corrosive exercise. The common wisdom about regret — that what hurts the most is not what you did but what you didn’t do — also appears to be true, at least in the long run.

Yet it is partly from studies of lost possible selves that psychologists have come to a more complete understanding of how regret molds personality. These studies, in people recently divorced and those caring for a sick child, among others, suggest that it is possible to entertain idealized versions of oneself without being mocked or shamed. And they suggest that doing so may serve an important psychological purpose.
Researchers have found that, in general, people react to past mistakes or missed opportunities in one of three ways:

  1. Some fixate on the problems and are at increased risk for mood disorders.
  2. Some ignore, and thereby avoid thinking about, the problems.
  3. Some, in a position between the first two, move carefully among their problem memories and try to deal with the most salient ones.

People's age at time of reflection may influence how they view their regrets. Carey reports on a 2003 study that revealed a contrast between young adults' and older adults' reactions to decisions they regret. Among persons who scored high in psychological well-being, young adults "tended to think of regretted decisions as all their own — perhaps because they still had time to change course"; older adults, in contrast, "tended to share blame for their regretted decisions. 'I tried to reach out to him, but the effort wasn’t returned.'”

A change of perspective may also influence the way people react emotionally to unpleasant incidents from the past:
Even the perspective from which people remember slights or mistakes can affect the memories’ emotional impact, new research suggests. A recent Columbia study found that reimagining painful scenes from a third-person point of view, as if seeing oneself in a movie, blunted their emotional sting.
But reflection on lost possible selves is not necessarily all bad. In a recent article (see reference below) psychologists Laura King and Joshua Hicks argue that "the capacity to acknowledge what is regrettable in life emerges from maturity and contributes to maturation itself."

The key to King and Hicks's approach is a view of goal change as a developmental opportunity in adulthood. While setting goals and trying to achieve them is a process that gives us purpose in life, it is also important to be able to realize when it's more appropriate to disengage from a particular goal than to continue to pursue it. The process of evaluating goals and considering whether it's time to let them go is, as King and Hicks say, one of life's "teachable moments." Acknowledging the necessity to change one's life goals necessarily involves creating new goals that take into account one's current situation.

Two additional concepts important in King and Hicks's argument are happiness (a subjective sense of well-being) and complexity (the level of complexity with which one experiences oneself and the world), which they describe as two aspects of maturity. It is the people unable to disengage from currently impossible "possible selves" who are most negatively affected by the bitterness of regret. But while happiness "requires that individuals truly divest themselves of previously sought after goals," the development of complexity "may require an examination of these very goals."

A mature person is one who acknowledges the loss of a possible self but is not consumed by that loss and who maintains a commitment to currently important goals. Regrets "become less regrettable as they are incorporated into the ever-changing life story."


King, L. A., & Hicks, J. A. (2007). Whatever happened to "what might have been"? Regrets, happiness, and maturity. American Psychologist, 62(7), 625-636.

© 2008 by Mary Daniels Brown

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