How To Deal With Regret: Moving Forward From The Past

Updated July 07, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Laura Angers

It can be pretty common to hear the advice “live a life with no regrets.” But what does that really mean? Is it even possible to live a life that doesn’t have any regrets? And what if you’ve already experienced regrets in your life? It is possible to move forward from the past if you learn how to deal with regret. If not, they may be something that you carry throughout your entire life.

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What Causes Regret?

There are many different things that can cause you to feel regret in life. And they can vary from one person to the next.

Some of the things that you may feel regret about include things that you did in the past that you wished you didn’t do. This could be hurtful words that you said to someone. An action you took that had a negative consequence or a decision you made that didn’t go the way you thought.

However, you can also feel regret about things you didn’t do in the past that you wished you would have. You may regret that you didn’t go to college after high school, didn’t apply for the promotion, or didn’t ask out the person that you wanted.

Regret can be something that you struggle with from any area of life. You can have regrets from situations around your family, friends, career, travel, hobbies, or anything else. And it doesn’t matter if the things you feel regret over is something that is actually warranted or not.

Forbes listed 25 regrets that many people have and a few of them include:

  • Not staying in touch with childhood friends
  • Working too much and not spending enough time with family
  • Not applying for the dream job
  • Taking life too seriously
  • Not forgiving another person
  • Not taking care of health

You may also feel regret over something because of feelings or emotions that you have instead of the situation itself. For example, you may feel regret that you spent so much time worrying about what other people thought of you. Or, you may regret not having the confidence to try more things.

And that’s one of the reasons why two people can experience the same situation, and one feels regret, and the other does not.

What Does Regret Look Like

Common Feelings Of Regret

There are several words that people can attach to feelings of regret. We may feel sad that we did something we wished we didn’t do. Or, we may feel angry with ourselves for missing an opportunity. It’s also common to think of things that we will regret in terms of what we wished we would have done.

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And while there are a lot of words that people naturally say to express the regret that they’re feeling, it can be helpful to acknowledge that what you’re really feeling is actually regret.

brain imaging study done by psychologists found that when we name and verbalize our feelings, it helps them to feel less intense. So, it can be helpful to acknowledge that what you’re feeling is actually regret and not just sadness or anger or wishful thinking. When you have acknowledged that you have regrets in your life, it can help you to take the next steps in moving past those regrets.

Why It’s Dangerous To Stay Stuck In Regret

Regret isn’t something that you need to allow to hold you back in life. But it can be easy to fall into this trap when there are things that you wish you could change about the past.

Staying stuck in your regret most likely won’t help change your life for the better. Not only does it not change any past action or inaction in your life, but living in regrets and staying stuck in the past does not help you live differently in the future, either.

Regrets can cause you to feel bad about yourself. They can cause you to get stuck in a cycle of low self-esteem, which can rob your confidence for the future. This makes it difficult for you to try new things and try living in a different way as you move forward.

It can also make it difficult to see new opportunities as they come. Or, as new opportunities are presented to you, if you are still thinking about your regrets, it can cause you to repeat the same mistakes that you made in the past because you have that expectation of yourself.

As painful as it can be to acknowledge, it’s important to learn from the past and then move on from it.

How To Deal With Regret

Evaluate the situation to see what you can learn from it

We can learn something about ourselves from almost every situation that we’re in, both good and bad. One way to move forward from regret is to spend some time evaluating what happened and what you’re able to take away from the situation.

The Anxiety and Depression Association of America recommends that you ask yourself the following questions as you think about your past regrets:

  • Could I have acted any differently considering the particular stage in my life and the information or experiences I had until that point in my life?
  • Was it only me or did anything or anyone else contributes to my mistake?
  • Is there anything I did right in the situation that I regret so much?
  • As a result of this regretful experience, have I changed the way I behave and respond to similar situations?
  • Is there anything you can do now that will make any difference in how you think and feel about a situation you regret?

As you process through these questions, look for any lessons that you can learn about yourself. You may be able to identify ways that even a situation that you regretted may have helped you in other areas. This can help you to remove some of the negative emotions that you have connected with that regret as you’re able to see ways that you learned and grew because of it.

See If You Can Make It Right

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There are some regrets that you are able to take action on to correct right now. For example, if you regret not going to college to get a degree that you wanted, find out if you can enroll now. Or, if you regret how much time you wasted being worried about what other people thought of your decisions, you can take the steps you need to right now to build confidence and go forward in a different way.

While you can’t unsay something that you said or something that you did that hurt someone else, you can apologize to that person. This doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to accept your apology. But it’s a step that you can take to work in the direction of moving forward yourself.

While you don’t have control over what other people do, look for ways you can correct the regrets you have in your life.

Forgive Yourself

There are some things that you are not going to be able to make right or change from your past. It may have been mistakes that you made in the past, or things that you purposely did at that time but now regret. In these cases, it’s important to learn how to forgive yourself.

Sometimes it is the lack of forgiveness we hold on ourselves that keep us stuck instead of forgiveness that we’re waiting on from another person. It’s may not be easy to show yourself grace when you feel like you don’t deserve it, but learning how to do it can be important for moving forward from your regrets and living differently in the future.

Forgive Others

If you have regrets in life that are tied to something that someone else did to you, you may be waiting on an apology from them. Unfortunately, you don’t have any control over if they’re going to apologize or not. In some cases, you’re going to need to forgive them without them ever asking for your forgiveness.

You may also have people from your past that are no longer in your life right now that you have bitter feelings towards. If you don’t address those feelings, they can continue to follow you and negatively impact different areas of your life as you move forward. Learning how to forgive other people can help free you up to live your life in a healthier way.

What To Do If You’re Still Feeling Stuck

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Regrets can be hard to move forward from, even when you know that it would be beneficial for you to do. If you are struggling to move forward, it can be helpful to talk to a therapist about your situation. Therapists, like those at BetterHelp, can assist you in determining things such as what regrets you have, why they happened, and how you can learn to move forward from them in a healthy way.

While it might be a great goal to “live a life with no regrets,” you’re human. You are going to make mistakes from time to time, and it’s important that you know how to move forward when you do. The mistakes and regrets that you have from the past do not need to be your future.


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