How To Deal With Regret: Moving Forward From The Past
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 level of regret can even be positive, since it can help us make amends and avoid repeating the same mistakes in the future. However, carrying a significant sense of regret through life can have a negative impact on health and well-being. Let’s take a closer look at what regret is, why we may feel it, and how to cope with it in a healthy way.
What Is Regret, And What Causes It?
The American Psychological Association defines regret as “an emotional response to remembrance of a past state, condition, or experience that one wishes had been different”. A sense of regret 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.
There are many different things that can cause you to feel regret in life. And they can vary from one person to the next.
For example, one might feel regret about 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 that were out of your control, such as regret that your children won’t get to meet a relative of yours who passed away or regret 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 has the possibility to help us grow and make more positive decisions going forward, but it can also weigh us down. First, fixating on times in the past where 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 negative mental health effects.
Holding on to regret may even cause physical health problems. One study reports that “The emotional distress of regrets can trigger biological dysregulation of the hormone and immune systems”. This can make people more vulnerable to developing health problems, from the common cold to longer-term health issues.
Tips For Dealing With Regret
To avoid the negative consequences of holding on to regret, consider the following tips to learn how to manage it in a healthier way.
Reflect And Move On
One way to move forward from regret is to spend a bit of time evaluating what happened and determining 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 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?
As a result of this regretful experience, have I changed the way 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, via journaling, or verbally with the help of a therapist, look for any helpful lessons that you can learn. You may also be able to see more nuance in the situation in hindsight, such as how it produced both positive and negative outcomes. As a result, you may be able to release some of the more painful emotions 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, let yourself move on.
Make Amends If Possible
In some situations, there’s still time to correct a situation you regret. For example, if you regret not going after a particular degree in college, you may be able to 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.
Offering a sincere apology may help you release some of the regret you feel, for instance. Even though it doesn’t change the situation, this type of concrete action may still help you get closure on what happened.
Everyone makes mistakes. While reflecting on them and aiming to do better 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
Speak With A Therapist
Sometimes, it may be beneficial to have an impartial third party available to help you work through and move past a sense of regret. 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 in a constructive way, and learn how to move forward.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in particular can be a helpful way to learn to reframe the way you think about certain situations so you can 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 would find meeting with a provider virtually from the comfort of 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 who you can meet with via phone, video call, and/or in-app messaging. Research suggests that online and in-person therapy can offer similar benefits in many cases, which means that you can typically choose the format that works best for you.
We all make mistakes and experience situations where things went differently than we would’ve hoped. Regret can be useful in helping us avoid the same errors in the future, but it can also weigh heavily on us if we let it. The tips in this article may help you learn to overcome a strong sense of regret, as may speaking with a trained therapist.
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