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Keeping Score Saving Face

Spilt Milk

People are fond of saying they don’t suffer from regret – ‘no regrets’ a badge of honour to put on public display, a statement of strength in the face of crisis and failure. The
public denial of regret is a performance, designed to show the world that a person’s moral and emotional fortitude can stand strong against the mistakes and calamities of the past. To regret is to be weak, a sign that life has got the better of you.

But, of course, people protest too much. Too often in these scenarios individuals confuse their own personal struggle over real regrets with their desire to be rid of them. Everybody has regrets, and no amount of avoiding ‘crying over spilt milk’ will ease this
burden. ‘Regretfulness’ may not be a proper word (it should be), but it exists. People suffer from it to varying degrees, but it is a common, even universal, condition. How we respond to our own regret is another question, which should not be confused with the absence of regret. The capacity to manage and control regret is an individual trait, with varying outcomes (denying that regret exists one way of controlling its effects). This capacity, however, is a consequence of the presence of regret in the first place.

As the above picture indicates, personal regret can revolve around what one did in the past as well as what one did not do. Yet regret over the latter carries the greater burden. As Sydney Smith one said, ‘regret for the things we did can be tempered by
time; it is regret for the things we did not do that is inconsolable’. But a more significant question for Dirty Looks is the connection between regret and the relational world. Regret is a deeply personal emotion, one that doesn’t necessarily involve the presence or absence of others. The nature of regret means that resentment, bitterness and jealousy are never far away, but such relational emotions should not be reduced or
confused with regret. For example, regret over not achieving one’s potential, while the source of much anger and interpersonal misery, is not necessarily dependent on levels of recognition, approval and respect from others. They are part of the mix, while not the full picture. This ‘personal’ component of regret may help explain why its denial is so vociferous, public and unyielding.

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By Mark Murphy

Mark Murphy is a Reader in Education and Public Policy at the University of Glasgow. He previously worked as an academic at King’s College, London, University of Chester, University of Stirling, National University of Ireland, Maynooth, University College Dublin and Northern Illinois University. Mark is an active researcher in the fields of education and public policy. His research interests include educational sociology, critical theory, accountability in higher education, and public sector reform.