Revenue from tattoo removal services have increased 440% over the last decade. How can we learn to live with regret?
Caught in a whirlwind of passion, Justin Bieber tattooed Selena Gomez on his wrist—ink he now regrets. He’s not alone: Johnny Depp had to reimagine his affirmation to Winona Ryder on his shoulder. There are other reasons for tattoo regret. Demi Lovato needed a cover-up when her vagina tat no longer inspired, while Adam Levine can’t stand the “cauliflower sun” on his right shoulder.
Tattoo regrets are not only for celebrities. Revenue from tattoo removal services have increased 440 per cent over the last decade; this particular service is projected to hit $83.2 million next year. It is an especially incredible number given that exactly zero tattoos are mandatory. These are all self-inflicted wounds creating an entire business model based on regret.
According to New Yorker staff writer Kathryn Schulz, 17 per cent of Americans regret their tattoo decisions. One 2015 study in Colorado found that a third of tattooed adolescents would change their minds, though that number does appear to decrease as we age.
"Older respondents report less regret, and this part of the finding perhaps is more telling because at least some of these respondents got their tattoos when they were younger," write the authors of the 2015 study. "Men report more regret, and this finding most likely is due to their tendency to get larger tattoos and to get them in places that cannot be covered as easily as tattoos on women."
A brand new tattoo on a woman's back expresses her desire for revenge. In 2001, Addictions Tattoo in Midway City, CA, was giving away free tattoos that express the feelings of nationalism that swept the US in anticipation of America's retaliation for the 9/11 terror attacks. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)
Schulz certainly regrets her tattoo. Unlike Bieber and Depp, who probably only regretted their decision when the serotonin and oxytocin dried up, she felt remorse the moment she walked out of the shop.
Schulz uses tattoos as an entry point for discussing regret, which she defines as an emotion we feel when we believe the present can be better if only we’d done something differently in the past. While the quasi-New Age, quasi-hyper-masculine notion that humans should live without regret persists in our culture, she advocates for a more compassionate approach.
If you want to be fully functional, and fully human, and fully humane, I think you need to learn to live not without regret, but with it.
According to Schulz, regret requires agency and imagination. That is, we have to realize we made a decision and we have to imagine a different choice could have existed. The more we have of either of these, the more acute the regret will be.
Tattoos rank fifth in overall regrets. Parenting decisions rank fourth at 10 per cent; romantic decisions, 15 per cent; career is at second at 22 per cent; the winner is education, 32 per cent. Nearly a third of all regrets have to do with what we studied (or didn’t study).
The four psychological components of regret are denial, bewilderment, punishment, and perseveration, which is when you focus on the same thing over and over and over. Schulz recalls lying in bed the evening after permanently sketching a compass on her shoulder. In her bewildered mind she repeated a common mantra of the aggrieved: “Make it go away.” Saying it once is not unusual; having it play on loop is perseveration.
Instead of letting it fester, Schulz decided upon a different tack. She finds it healthier to expose yourself “to your own vulnerability in the face of an indifferent universe.” Staring at your regret in the mirror, painful as it seems, is better medicine than pretending it doesn’t exist.
Modern society makes it easy for us to avoid our problems. We simply need to unfriend or unfollow those we don’t agree with. Tech companies are even doing this job for us with filters that allow you to block words you don’t enjoy seeing or reaffirm your biases by repeating posts you enjoy. It's much harder to not only investigate opposing ideas, but to make peace with them.
Larry Happ, 68, raises his arms to show his tattoos as he competes for the senior man largest tattoo during the Los Angeles Tattoo Convention. (Photo MATHILDE DE L'ECOTAIS/AFP/Getty Images)
Schulz offers three avenues for making peace with regret. First, take comfort in its universality. Unless you’re sociopathic (or have had a lobotomy), you’ll regret something, or many things. How you react to your reactions is indicative of your character. A life of remorse is not ideal.
Laughing at yourself is her second remedy. This is often easier in hindsight, though some have trouble even entertaining the idea. A Buddhist approach—the simultaneous development of humility and compassion—is warranted in this regard. Laughter softens us, removes any perfectionist stain we’ve built up over time.
Which leads to the third: time heals all wounds, even permanent ink etched on your skin. These errant tattoos become reminders of a previous moment when that decision did in fact make sense. You learn how to chart progress based on your marks rather than dwell in their persistence.
I have over 60 hours of tattoo work on my body, which leaves a lot of room for error. Yet I long ago decided to never regret any of them, even those small Chinese characters I added at age 18 in a questionable New Jersey establishment. While I have had one cover-up that ended up working out—due to a terrible job, not at the idea itself—I’ve yet to regret any tattoo decision thanks to a mental reframing.
Would I have chosen some differently? Perhaps. But that wouldn’t have represented who I was at the moment I walked into the parlor. Each piece represents a stage of my life. I’m not alone in this regard: Pen & Ink is dedicated to narratives people build around their ink.
Schulz’s larger point goes beyond the repetitive punches of a tattoo gun. It’s a reminder to feel pain, to open yourself up to being vulnerable and remind yourself it’s okay to make poor decisions so long as they help you mature along the way.
The point is not to live without regrets. The point is to not hate ourselves for having them. We need to learn to love the flawed imperfect things that we create and to forgive ourselves for creating them. Regret doesn’t remind us that we did badly; it reminds us that we know we can do better.
Derek's next book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health, will be published on 7/4/17 by Carrel/Skyhorse Publishing. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch on Facebook and Twitter.
They have the same feelings as normal people. It’s how they make decisions that’s different.
Utter the word psychopath and immediately ideas of a sadistic serial killer with a penchant for blood comes to mind. Would it surprise you to know that you may interact with one every day? In fact, psychologists have noted that some of the top CEOs and others who hold lofty positions, and even many regular people who do not, have this condition. You may know, love, or even be a psychopath and not even know it. The important thing here is to define what a psychopath is.
The traditional definition is someone who cannot empathize with others, and so does not feel shame or regret for negative actions towards them. Fans of the TV series Dexter recognize this as the internal struggle of the main character. Their inability to understand the emotions of others makes them antisocial, which could cause the psychopath to become more of a threat in the boardroom, on the sports field, or in a dark alley, to others.
But now a new study is altering the definition entirely. Harvard associate psychology professor Joshua Buckhotlz was its co-author. He and Arielle Baskin-Sommers of Yale University found that psychopaths aren't immune to empathy. Many do in fact feel regret when they hurt others.
What they cannot do is predict the outcomes of their choices or behavior. They somehow aren't in tune with social norms, those rules that keep the peace and act as a social glue, thereby maintaining the social order. It is this inability to predict outcomes that may lead to them to poor choices, viewed as improper or even ghastly by others.
Some psychopaths may have their heart in the right place. But they can't recognize when they've crossed the line.
Researchers recruited a number of incarcerated persons, some who were deemed psychopaths and others who were not, and had them play a game based on economics. A metric called prospective regret sensitivity was used to measure each participant's level of regret, based on decisions they had made during the game. Psychopaths were seen as making riskier moves, but had difficulty evaluating whether or not they would regret them afterward.
Though we think of it as one emotion, Buckholtz claims that regret is actually a two-part process. The first part is retrospective regret. This is the kind we ruminate over, from the past. We think about a painful experience and wish we had made a better choice. From there, we can vow to take a different path in the future.
The second is prospective regret, which is when we take information from the environment and make predictions on what will happen, and whether or not we will regret our choice. Buckhotlz and Baskin-Sommers showed that it was an inability to make decisions based on values and understand the probable outcome, and its impact on others that defines a psychopath. “It's almost like a blindness to future regret," Buckhotlz said. Though in the aftermath they feel remorse, they can't see it coming.
A large number of the incarcerated have psychopathic tendencies. This study may lead to retraining them to avoid poor decision making.
“Contrary to what you would expect based on these basic emotional-deficit models, their emotional responses to regret didn't predict incarceration." Buckhotlz said. Yet, “We know psychopathy is one of the biggest predictors of criminal behavior." Being able to train individuals to recognize signs of future regret could be a way to make a more compassionate psychopath, and one that might stay away from trouble, and incarceration.
Though we know much about the condition, we know very little about how psychopaths make decisions, researchers said. Psychologists have mostly delved into how their emotions work and what emotional experiences they have. But how they use that information and other signals from the environment to make decisions, has heretofore, never been studied. According to Buckhotlz, “Getting better insight into why psychopaths make such terrible choices, I think, is going to be very important for the next generation of psychopathy research."
Baskin-Sommers added further insight saying, “These findings highlight that psychopathic individuals are not simply incapable of regret [or other emotions], but that there is a more nuanced dysfunction that gets in the way of their adaptive functioning." Understanding this can help psychologists develop better methods for predicting psychopathic behavior and perhaps even train such individuals to recognize clues and steer clear of pitfalls, thus making better life decisions.
Think you might have psychopathic tendencies? Click here to find out: