Regret is a recurring feeling of sadness or disappointment about a past decision. It’s different than guilt in that the decision was less obviously wrong at the time—even if it’s clear now.
If you struggle with chronic regret, here are 4 ways to deal with it in a healthy way…
1. Accept that you can’t eliminate regret completely
If you made a bad decision, it’s normal and inevitable that you will continue to feel regret about it periodically.
- If you never said I love to that friend before you lost them, you will always remember and regret that
- If you made a bad financial investment and had to delay retirement for a few years, you’re unlikely to forget about it and never feel regret
As long as you have a functioning memory, you can’t eliminate regret entirely.
But whether your regret is chronic and overwhelming or occasional and fleeting, all comes down to how you respond to it.
Specifically, if you try to avoid or get rid of regret, which teaches your mind to fear it. And what your mind fears, it becomes hypervigilant and overly-sensitive to.
What you resist persists.
So instead of constantly trying to eliminate or escape your regret, try this instead:
Accept that you will always feel some regret from time to time.
When regret emerges, remind yourself that just because it feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad. Or that you’re bad for feeling it.
Practice being willing to feel regret and get on with life anyway.
2. Avoid self-pitying behavior
Often indulging in self-pitying is an unconscious attempt to feel less regret by rationalizing responsibility for what happened.
- Your boss offers you a promotion on the spot one day but you turn it down because you don’t want the added stress and responsibility. In hindsight, you realize it would have been worth the stress, so now you regret the decision. And each time you’re reminded of that decision and feel regret, your immediate reaction is to replay the event in your mind and tell yourself how unfair it was of your boss to spring the decision on you and how they should have given you more time
Self-pitying feels good in the short term because it temporarily shifts responsibility off of you.
But it usually leads to feeling worse in the long run because when you elaborate on your regret every time it pops up, you’re reinforcing it and making it more likely to show up in the future.
Try this instead…
Acknowledge the pity; control the self-pitying.
Pity is an emotion you can’t control. Self-pitying is a behavior (often a mental behavior) you can.
If a memory of a regrettable decision pops into mind and you end up feeling regret and pity toward yourself, well, that’s not something you can control.
But if your immediate response to those emotions is to engage in self-pitying behavior… well, that is something you can and should take control over, ideally by setting better mental boundaries.
3. Practice self-forgiveness
A big part of moving past regret is forgiving yourself.
But most people misunderstand what forgiveness really is. They assume it’s a feeling (the relief of being forgiven) or a single decision (“I forgive myself”).
But both of these are incorrect and almost always unhelpful. Because in reality…
Forgiveness is a commitment, not a single decision or a feeling.
Forgiving yourself means committing to letting go of the impulse to replay your past mistakes when you’re reminded of them.
It means taking responsibility for your attention and where you choose to put it instead of letting it be pulled around by whatever thought, memory, or emotions pops into your consciousness.
Think about it like this…
When you forgive someone else, the words “I forgive you” are just the first step…
The real work of forgiveness is making the decision each and every time to let go of the memory of hurt and refocus your attention on moving forward and building a better relationship.
The same is true with forgiving yourself.
4. Reframe ‘I Should Haves’ into ‘I Want Tos’
Most people assume regret is about the past. But that’s a mistake.
Viewed properly, regret is about how you want to live your life in the future.
See, regret isn’t some evil trick your mind is playing on you just to make you suffer. No, regret is actually your mind trying to be helpful. Specifically…
We feel regret about past mistakes so that we can avoid them in the future.
- The pain of regret over not telling someone you loved them before it was too late. This isn’t your brain punishing you for a bad decision in the past—it’s motivating you to do it better in the future. To remember to tell people you love them often because you never know how much time you have left with them.
- Making a bad financial investment. The pain of regret associated with that bad investment is your mind’s way of motivating you to steer clear of anything remotely resembling a get-rich-quick scheme in the future.
Regret is your brain nudging you to clarify your values.
When you feel regret and start thinking of all the ‘I should haves,’ ask yourself instead:
What value is my regret trying to remind me of?
I want to tell people that I love them more…
I want to be more courageous…
I want to set better boundaries…
When regret strikes, flip your should-haves into want-tos.
A final thought
Your regrets aren’t trying to keep you a prisoner of the past. They’re trying to move you forward into a better future.
10 CommentsAdd Yours
Well Thank You Nick, for presenting a good definition of self-pitying behavior. Now that I can identify it, I can decide whether to do it, or to do something healthier. Thanks so much for your newsletter. My husband passed from life on earth last year, and your weekly email is a real help.
GREAT Material !
I have a big regret, the kind that keeps you awake at night 10 years later. Mostly I can push it down. My partner thinks I acted appropriately, everyone else has been lovely but I know I was wrong and it has distanced me from a large number of people I knew back then. When I try to explain it to my partner he thinks I’m putting blame on him, when I’m facing up to how I was too weak to tell him that I needed to do something & disrupt his plans. It’s incredibly isolating. The Maya Angelou quote “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time” haunts me. I saw who I was and I don’t like her.
Know that we can’t do much with our past mistakes except to learn from them- yes, it may still way heavily upon you but if you accept it and learn your way forward, all shall heal in time. Do not hate yourself- that was a past self and now you just work on the present you and make sure you be the best you can be. If you don’t like something; change it so you do. Life is a test- one from which we learn too. Hope all gets better for you xx
Very helpful article! Thank you!
Such excellent information. Thank you.
Thank you, I enjoy reading it! You are great, and I like you!
Love this Nick. Thank you. Particularly love your final thought. 🙂
Sage wisdom to be learned early in life, when there is still reasonable time to embrace total forgiveness and build a better tomorrow!
If only I had understood this 40 years ago when realization, of a tragic decision 15 years earlier, when its unexpected and irreversible outcome became apparent, poisoning my mind and relationships to this day.
But I can “get over it” and have a better tomorrow.