How to Stop Regret from Holding You Back
This article is part of a series on how to cope with common feelings that can be tough to experience. Here, experts provide simple strategies for acknowledging and managing feelings of regret.
It’s nearly impossible and unrealistic to live a life without regrets. Whenever you make a decision, there’s an opportunity for regret.
Maybe you regret not checking the forecast because you didn’t pack an umbrella on a rainy day. Or you’re kicking yourself for not buying those killer shoes before they sold out. These are fairly minor regrets.
But many people experience regret on a larger scale, such as feeling remorse about turning down a job, how you treated your mother when she was alive, or whom you chose to marry.
What Is Regret?
“Regret relates to feeling sorrow, sadness, or disappointment about one’s actions in the past,” says Andrew Rosen, Ph.D., a board-certified psychologist and founder and clinical director of the Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders in Delray Beach, Florida. “It is a form of looking back with 20/20 vision and having a different idea than what one had at the time. Since every coin has two sides and everything has a plus and a minus, the person who is looking back becomes fixated on the other side of the coin.”
It’s not easy to explain why some regrets are more pervasive or intrusive than others. “Regret is cognitively complex,” says author Daniel H. Pink, of Washington, D.C., who surveyed thousands of people for his book The Power of Regret. “It depends on both our ability to travel through time in our heads and to imagine events that run counter to the actual facts.” In other words, you probably need a fairly vivid imagination to experience regret.
The Good and Bad Sides of Regret
Regret can affect mental well‑being in a variety of ways. For example, one study suggests that people may perform simple tasks more poorly when they regret something, and fare better when they have no regrets.
In many cases, regret is unpleasant at first, but it becomes beneficial in the long run. “It can be an incredibly powerful tool for clarifying what we value and instructing us on how to live,” Pink says. “We should confront our regrets, use them as information and data, and draw lessons from them to apply to the future.”
But that’s not always easy. There are times when regret lingers.
“Regret can become obsessive, where the person overthinks about what they could have done differently,” Rosen says. “It is a difficulty in accepting what was at the time and, instead, going over and over one’s thoughts about what could have been different. Instead of acceptance, the person highlights a different option that could have been.”
4 Ways to Deal with Regret
You can’t always avoid regret, but there are some strategies you can use to cope with it in ways that help you learn from your mistakes rather than dwelling on them.
1. Forgive Yourself
When regret is intense, it can lead to feelings of guilt or self-anger. But remember: Making mistakes along the way is part of what makes you human.
“Any mistake is a moment in our lives, not the full measure of our lives,” Pink says. “When we begin with this approach, we open the path to make sense of our regrets and to draw lessons from them.”
It’s important to acknowledge your errors and to look ahead to a future in which you’ll strive to do better. “Forgive yourself to relieve that negativity,” says Fred Luskin, Ph.D., senior consultant in health promotion at Stanford University, in California, director of the Stanford Forgiveness Projects, and affiliate faculty member of the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California, Berkeley. “Let go of any anger, disappointment, and resentment you feel about yourself,” he says.
Instead of beating yourself up for your mistakes with negative self-talk, set a plan for avoiding similar errors in the future.
For example, let’s say you spill your coffee. It’s okay to think, “I should have used a travel mug” or “In the future, I will use a lid.” But avoid phrases like “I should have been more careful” or “If only I wasn’t such a klutz.”
Saying hurtful things about yourself “doesn’t give you a strategy to prevent it from happening again,” says Amy Summervile, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at Kairos Research, in Dayton, Ohio, and co-author of a study on regret. You’ll benefit more by giving yourself something concrete you can do to keep from spilling your coffee.
2. Apologize, If It’s Right for the Situation
If the thing you regret affected another person, consider making an apology. This may be particularly appropriate if it involved a conflict in a relationship or a situation in which you’ve caused emotional distress and pain.
“Apologize to someone when your actions led to their suffering,” Luskin says. A sincere apology can let the other person know that you’re remorseful about what happened and that you empathize with their feelings.
For example, let’s say you didn’t visit family when you were near their home, and they were hurt by your decision. You could reach out, say you’re sorry, and make a plan to stop by the next time you’re in town. “In that way, you have made amends as well as offered an apology,” Luskin says.
3. Find Support
It may help to tell someone you trust about what you did that you regret. The act of venting about the situation and knowing you have support can help you onto a path to healing.
Plus, it may strengthen your relationship with that person. “The act of disclosing these experiences of things that we could have done differently seems to make people closer after they share regrets,” Summerville says. “It’s a social relationship connection.”
4. Stop the Rumination Cycle
If you repeatedly replay what you did wrong in your head, it will only make you feel worse both physically and emotionally.
Instead, hit the pause button. Refocus your attention on the beauty of nature or the memory of a loved one, Luskin says. What happened doesn’t define who you are. Remind yourself that because of what happened in the past, you’re now armed with the tools to make a better choice when a similar issue arises in the future.
“Sometimes, significant or multiple regrets mean that we need to change how we behave,” Luskin says. Use these feelings as encouragement to alter your future actions.
When to Seek Help
Any time you want or need help dealing with regret, you can reach out to a mental health professional. Regret becomes problematic when it interferes with your ability to enjoy your daily life, Rosen says.
“It’s a problem when it becomes obsessive and causes mood changes and lasts,” he adds. If that’s the case, therapy may be important for helping you work through your feelings and create a positive action plan for the future.
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