While “living life with no regrets” is often cited as an aspirational goal, the reality is that most people will have regrets about at least some past actions, feelings, or situations. Experiencing some guilt can be positive since it can help us make amends and avoid repeating the same mistakes. However, carrying a powerful sense of regret through life can hurt health and well-being. Let’s look at regret, why we may feel it, and how to cope healthily.
What Is Regret, And What Causes It?
The American Psychological Association defines regret as “an emotional response to the remembrance of a past state, condition, or experience that one wishes had been different.” A sense of guilt can be big or small, lasting or fleeting, and is subjective and unique to the individual. It can come from many different sources or situations.
Many different things can cause you to feel regret in life. And they can vary from one person to the next.
For example, one might regret something they did in the past but wish they hadn’t—such as hurtful words said to someone, an action that had a negative consequence, or a decision that didn’t turn out as planned. Or, someone could regret not having done something, such as not applying for a promotion or not asking someone they liked out for a date. Regret can also be linked to circumstances out of your control, such as regret that your children won’t get to meet a relative who passed away or that you grew up in one place over another. This sense can apply to any area of life, from relationships to your career to hobbies or anything else.
Some of the most common regrets people cite, according to the results of a survey published by Forbes, include:
- Not staying in touch with childhood friends
- Working too much and not spending enough time with family
- Not applying for a dream job
- Taking life too seriously
- Not forgiving someone
- Not taking care of personal health
How Regret Can Be Harmful
Again, a sense of regret can help us grow and make more positive decisions in the future, but it can also weigh us down and keep us from living our best lives. First, fixating on memories from the past when we made decisions that turned out wrong or failed to act when we should have can decrease self-esteem. It puts us at risk of equating our mistakes with our self-worth, which can have adverse mental health effects.
Tips For Dealing With Regret
To avoid the negative consequences of being stuck in regret, consider the following tips to break the cycle of guilt and learn how to manage it more healthily.
Reflect And Move On
One way to move forward from regret is to evaluate what happened and determine what you can take away from the situation and the hard times that put you there. You might try to forget your inner critic for a moment and focus on what new things you’ve learned from your mistakes and how you’re growing because of them. You can practice mindfulness to acknowledge your past, move forward, and begin to live life in the moment.
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America recommends that you ask yourself the following questions to think about past regrets more productively:
- Could I have acted any differently, considering the stage in my life and the information or experiences I had up until that point?
- Was it only me, or did anything or anyone else contribute to my mistake?
- Is there anything I did right in the situation or things I can be grateful for?
- As a result of this regretful experience, have I changed how I behave and respond to similar situations?
- Is there anything I can do now that will make any difference in how I think and feel about the situation I regret?
As you process these questions either mentally, by writing in a journal, or verbally with the help of a therapist or other positive people in your life, look for any helpful lessons you can learn. Also remind yourself of how you’re making progress on your changed mindset and future decisions based on these situations. In hindsight, you may also see more nuance in the situation than you did in the moment it happened, such as how it produced both positive and negative outcomes. As a result, you may be able to release some of the more pain associated with the regretful situation because you’ll have a more well-rounded view of it, how you may have benefited, and what you can do differently next time. Once you’ve reflected on the situation and let your feelings run their course, allow yourself to move on.
Make Amends If Possible
There’s still time to correct a problem you regret in some situations. For example, if you regret not pursuing a particular college degree, you can enroll now. Or, if you regret the time you spent worrying about what others thought of you, you can engage in therapy or other practices to build your self-esteem and confidence now. You may also be able to make amends if you regret an action that hurt someone else.
For instance, offering a sincere apology may help you release some of your regrets. Even though it doesn’t change the situation, this concrete action may help you get closure on what happened and assist you in letting go.
Mistakes happen, and everyone makes them. While reflecting on them and aiming to improve in the future can be constructive, holding on to the regret and shame of something you wish you’d done differently can be debilitating. Forgiving yourself for past mistakes can help you move on. One method you might consider trying is the REACH model of self-forgiveness, which stands for:
- Recall or face the hurt
- Empathize, which means being kind and compassionate to yourself
- Altruistically offer yourself forgiveness
- Commit publicly, which means sharing your feelings and decision with someone else.
- Hold on to that forgiveness, staying true to your decision to let your past mistakes go.
By acknowledging your feelings and making a conscious decision to let go of mistakes, you may finally experience the fresh air and relief of forgiveness.
Speak With A Therapist
Forgiving yourself and letting go can be hard work. If you’re struggling to do so, having an impartial third party available to help you work through and move past a sense of regret may be beneficial. This is precisely what qualified therapists are trained to do: provide a safe space of nonjudgmental listening where you can process your emotions, reflect on what you learned constructively, and learn how to move forward.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can be a helpful way to learn to reframe the way you think about certain situations to escape the negative feedback loop of regret and self-judgment.
If you’re interested in seeking therapy, you have options. Those who would prefer to meet with someone in person can search for a provider in their local area. Those who find meeting with a provider virtually from their home more comfortable or accessible might consider online therapy. With a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp, you can get matched with a licensed therapist whom you can meet via phone, video call, and in-app messaging from anywhere in the world with an internet connection. Research suggests that online and in-person therapy can offer similar benefits in many cases, so you can typically choose the best format for you.
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