Regret is a significant driver behind many of our decisions. Our lives are full of choices we make (or don’t make), and sometimes, those paths taken (or not) can lead to regret. This isn’t surprising or uncommon, but it hurts, and we want to make the hurt disappear. There are ways we can cope with regret, and healing the past can significantly influence our present-day life and regret.
Regret Is Painful
We know regret hurts. It haunts. It taunts. By the nature of the definition of regret, there is the implication that if WE had only done something
differently, things would be different. The bad thing wouldn’t have happened, or the good thing would have. It doesn’t feel very good because it’s a guilt-driver we put upon ourselves. It’s not just wishing things were different but blaming ourselves for circumstances not being different because of something we did or didn’t do.
I talk with my clients a lot about healthy and unhealthy guilt; you can hear more about that in this podcast.
What Causes Regret?
In a few words, we do.
Each time we make a choice, there is a chance we will regret it. The self-doubt, self-blame, and guilt that come from coping with the results of our decisions can manifest as regret.
Have you ever questioned yourself, asking:
- Did I make the right decision?
- Which is the right way to go?
- If I had chosen differently, would things have turned out better?
- Which job? Or partner?
- Would I have been happier with the other choice?
Some regrets are minor and cause us to make different decisions in our day-to-day choices. Choosing a green shirt over a red shirt because it looks better or eating the salad over the burger next time because the burger made you feel too full.
Others are bigger, like regretting a job or a person you married. Some decisions we regret a lot, and others, not as much. Why is that?
What Research Says About Regret
Research says that if you don’t feel as if you had control over the decision, you may not feel as regretful. You may wish things were different, but it’s not exactly your fault they are not, and you recognize that.
You rationally realize that your responsibility for the turnout of events was minimal; therefore, you don’t have as much guilt to heap on yourself.
Other times, though, we realize we did have responsibility for how things played out–or at least we think we did– so we take that more personally when things work out in ways we wish they didn’t.
There’s a concept called the Opportunity Principle, which says that the more opportunity you have, the more regrets you’ll have because of the increased responsibility in your decision-making.
In short, researchers say that when you’re not able to control what’s happening as much, you’re much less likely to regret the outcome, but when you have much more say and many more options, you’re more likely to regret choices made.
Where Does Regret Happen Most?
Doing the forgiveness work I do, regret often occurs in a few situations more than others. They include:
- Relationships – romantic and friendships
- Workplaces or career relationships
- Health-related issues such as addictions/self-harm/not taking care of oneself leading to more significant health issues.
The interesting thing is that within these categories, regret often comes the most out of choices that one does NOT make. For example, something like not taking a business opportunity they should have, not taking care of themselves as they should, or not choosing the right person to be in a relationship with.
Research also shows that people often regret inaction (things they don’t choose) more than actions they have taken that they perceive as poor decisions.
This is because when you see the result of something you poorly choose, you only imagine the outcomes of a different decision. The inaction opens up a world full of scenarios of ‘should have been,’ and we all know ‘should’ is one of those words that eats us up.
This is summed up well in this Very Well Mind article:
“The consequences of the actions you did take are set in stone and readily apparent, but the ones you didn’t take seem like boundless opportunities wasted.
In other words, the perceived gains of the choices you didn’t make seem to outweigh the actual consequences of your actions, so the sting of regret for missed opportunities looms much more prominent in your mind.”
How Does Regret Affect Us?
Regret affects us in all areas. Physically, emotionally and mentally.
Think about times you’ve been ruminating over a decision you regret and how your body seems tense. You may experience muscle pains and aches, or you can’t sleep. You feel stressed and upset and replay it in your head.
Without sleep and with all that stress, future decision-making becomes difficult. You aren’t present for what you need to be, and then you make more decisions that you may regret. You may become emotional or angry or find you’re crying a lot, which can lead to low self-esteem, anxiety, and hopelessness. Regret can be a vicious cycle in your life.
The Very Well article I mentioned above also said,
“When people think taking an action will lead to greater regret, they are less likely to engage in risky behavior. And when people think that not taking action will lead to feelings of regret (such as not taking care of their health or not engaging in regular exercise), they become more likely to take steps to avoid those anticipated regrets.”
This passage resonates so strongly with me.
I didn’t want to go through heartbreak again, so I held myself back from taking risks and dating. I held myself back from promotional opportunities in the corporate world because I didn’t want to face rejection. I didn’t want to take care of myself and eat well or exercise because I didn’t want to let others down, and that made me too busy for myself. Then I had a back and neck fusion and a brain tumor; the stress of regret and worry nearly killed me.
Coping With Regret
How do we deal with regret so it doesn’t take those nasty tolls on our lives? It’s a process–it takes time, self-compassion, and self-reflection, but we can do it. Here are a few tips on how:
- Acknowledge your feelings. Feel what you feel, and don’t shy away no matter what. When we feel our feelings healthily, the freedom is incredible. It’s then we can be confident in accepting all the beautiful parts of us.
- Be kind to yourself. Use self-compassion. EVERYONE makes choices and mistakes. EVERYONE does the best they can with what they have at their ready, and we’re all human. Give yourself the same kindness and compassion you’d give someone you dearly love.
- Apologize if you need to. And then make amends if necessary. If your regret is over something that hurt others, apologize and make amends. This responsibility will facilitate healing for you both, and remember to make amends with yourself too. Tell yourself you did the best you knew how, but you will now grow and learn as you move forward.
- Reframe. You know I’m big on reframing situations, so do so with regret. Look for silver linings or opportunities for growth that don’t allow regret only to be painful.
- Forgive yourself. You knew this was coming–forgiving yourself is essential to coping with regret. Not only does regret have a guilt component, but it also has self-recrimination. We are horrid to ourselves and beat ourselves up over and over about the decisions we make.
Forgiving ourselves is about learning to accept our mistakes as much as our successes–it’s the process of learning to be kind to ourselves and grow into who we are to become. It’s vital.
So when we take responsibility for what happens and make amends to others (and ourselves), we give ourselves power back to make even better choices in our present AND future!
Regret is Unavoidable
We aren’t going to avoid regret because it is a part of our humanness. We can minimize the pain that comes with regret and work to take out the negativity and see the growth opportunities. Regret doesn’t have to be all bad. It can be motivating too. When it helps us overcome past mistakes, we can take action to correct them and move forward in stronger, more empowered ways.
Healing from regret is a process, so taking your time is okay. Be patient and allow yourself space to grow and heal. If you find that your regret significantly impacts your daily life and well-being, consider seeking support from a life coach or mental health professional. They’ll help guide you on this journey we call life.