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.