If there is one thing that many of us would wish to experience in life, it is living life without regrets. We all want to live without having to deal with repercussions or judgments our choices would bring.
However, the reality is that life is full of choices, and we are often confronted with having to make a decision. Sometimes we make the right decision, but other times, in retrospect, we don’t. If we feel that we chose wrongly, regret soon creeps in. While experiencing regret is a natural reaction, we all know how difficult dealing with it can be.
Regret is the negative emotional or cognitive state that we often experience after something we did (that we wish we hadn’t) or did not do (that we wish we had). It involves blaming ourselves for a bad outcome or having a sense of loss over what could have been.
Most of the time, we wish we could undo or redo what happened.
Ultimately, regret is feeling a wave of sadness, grief, guilt, and loss, and we all want to overcome this negative emotion as soon as possible.
Feeling regretful can be a sign that we care about our relationships with others. However, dealing with regrets can also teach us things about ourselves we may never have learned otherwise. Understanding this negative emotion and how to overcome it, is an emotional journey that can help us grow as a person.
Why We Have Regrets
To be able to overcome regrets over decisions we have made, we need to understand further why we experience regret in the first place.
We often associate feelings of regret with older people. It is common for the elderly to feel regretful over the choices that they made in the past. But no one is actually immune from experiencing regret.
Studies on regret show that a significant reason behind feeling regretful is anchored on our sense of self. A person’s sense of self is believed to be comprised of three different yet related components, namely, actual, ideal, and ought selves.
Our actual self is based on our self-concept, while our ideal self represents the attributes that we wish to have. Meanwhile, our ought self is based on our socially-rooted duties and obligations.
When there are discrepancies or misalignment among our three selves, this is the time when negative emotions, including regret, arise.
We feel regretful because our actual self is not aligned with our ideal self. We also feel remorse and guilt when we believe that our actual self fails to live up to the expectations of our ought self.
The degree of regret that we experience can and does vary. For example, research shows that regret over past actions and mistakes tends to be short-term as people find ways to amend their wrongdoings.
On the other hand, regret over things people did not do, or missed opportunities in the past, tend to linger for longer periods. Because of this, chronic regret is more common among the elderly.
How Regret Affects Us
We may not be aware of the extent to which our regrets can affect us. Regret can consume us, both emotionally and physically. It can affect our relationships with others and even with ourselves. Our regrets in life can hold us back from living our lives to the fullest.
Regret over decisions we have made in the past can hinder us from finding happiness in our current circumstances. When we find ourselves endlessly ruminating over the things that happened or did not happen, we get stuck in re-living that specific moment in our lives.
We can then fail to see or fully appreciate what is going on in the present. We may fail to build genuine and lasting relationships with others because our regret, coupled with our fears and anxieties, gets in the way.
For some people, being regretful also makes them act in a self-persecutory manner over their actions. This behavior is considered self-flagellation and can bring damage to their mental health.
It is not just our mental and emotional state that is affected whenever we have regrets. The feeling of emotional distress brought by regret can throw our hormones off-balance, especially over long periods.
For example, being in constant stress because of negative emotions such as regret makes our bodies produce more cortisol, the stress hormone. As a result, our heart rate increases as our blood sugar level shoots up.
At the same time, other physiological functions, such as our immune system, digestion, and even production of our growth hormones, are decreased.
People who are often in a state of emotional distress caused by negative emotions are more prone to a range of sicknesses – from simple colds to more life-threatening conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease.
How to Cope with Regret
It’s important that we learn how to cope with regret so we don’t keep beating ourselves up over past decisions made.
If regrets are holding you back and impacting your happiness, work on the following to get past it and into a healthier headspace.
Our regrets, along with our resentment and guilt, can make us feel like a prisoner of our own emotions. Asking for forgiveness, if possible, is a way for us to become free from our self-imposed emotional jail cell.
Aside from apologizing to those we have caused hurt, we must also learn to forgive ourselves. Accept that what happened in the past is hurtful and that we have had lapses of judgment.
But also acknowledge that what happened is in the past, and we can no longer change it. What we can do is to learn from our mistakes and become a stronger and wiser person moving forward.
Identify Your Triggers
There are instances when a particular person, situation, or memory triggers our negative emotions, including regret.
We need to identify our triggers for us to prepare ourselves ahead of time. When we know what triggers our feelings of guilt, it is easier for us to control our emotional response.
Knowing our triggers also enables us to empower ourselves in the face of these negative emotions through positive and affirming statements and thoughts.
Deep breathing, thinking of positive imagery, our simply taking some alone time to regroup and strengthen your emotional resolve are all helpful ways to identify your emotional triggers. Always remember that we have the power over our negative thoughts; we just need to be well-prepared to deal with them.
Write About It
Writing in a journal has long been hailed as a therapeutic healing process. Studies on dealing with regrets and intrusive thoughts reveal that people who write about their experiences and feelings in a journal regularly report having fewer symptoms of colds and felt healthier overall.
People who wrote about an upsetting incident at least once a week had less regular negative thoughts. Journaling provides a healthier way to talk about how we feel.
According to psychologists, people who write about their regrets are better able to put the experience in context, enabling them to rationalize the incident(s) and leave their regrets behind. To enable more complete healing, as part of writing about their guilt patients are also encouraged to write about their goals for the future.
Focus On the Positive Things
Feeling regretful can blind us to the many other positive things that surround us. Instead of dwelling on our regrets and on the things we wish we did or the opportunities we missed, we can shift our focus on the more positive things going on in our lives.
What are your valuable contributions over your life to date? What makes you feel good?
Appreciate what makes you special in this world. When we focus on the things we have, we also learn to be grateful for them. We can also choose to emphasize the positive side of our regrets.
Instead of focusing on the mistakes, we can focus on what we learned from that experience and be thankful for the opportunity to grow as a person. Practicing gratitude is a good way of making yourself feel more positive, calmer, and freer.
By focusing on our positive attributes, we also open our eyes and widen our view of what really matters. While we cannot change what happened in the past, we can certainly take more control of our present and our future.
Our regrets can definitely work against us. But, conversely, we can use our regrets to propel us to take action.
We cannot change what happened in the past, and sometimes, making amends is not a viable option. So instead of focusing on your regret, you can re-channel your energy into something more productive and purposeful.
Maybe you can no longer fix the broken relationship with an estranged family member. But you can focus on improving the relationships that you have with your partner or children.
If you regret the lack of certain aspects of your education, you can use that as motivation to learn new things or take up a new hobby. When we begin to take action, we also start to move on from the past.
We switch our minds away from the negative experience that happened in the past and focus on the present, with all its potential and opportunities.
Assess the Situation
Sometimes, we beat ourselves up for things that are no longer within our control. Even if we know that we already did the best that we can in the given circumstance, things can still go wrong. This is why it is also essential to assess what happened as objectively as possible before we feel guilty and responsible for what happened.
For example, you finally bought your dream house after months of comparing your options. However, the property turns out to be a money pit. Perhaps there are some details that the previous owner failed to mention.
Or maybe there are small things that escaped your attention even after a thorough inspection. But, unfortunately, reparation may be already out of your control.
Instead of beating yourself up for what happened, assess the situation first. There is comfort in knowing that you already did what you can and that there is nothing else you could have done to avoid the problem. Make an effort to focus on solutions and not the undeniable issues.
Accept What Happened
We are bound to make mistakes. No one is born free from making wrong choices – no one is perfect. However, feeling regretful shows that you care. Sometimes we need to accept that we are fallible creatures, but that should not become the basis of whether or not we deserve to be happy.
Acceptance is always the first step to moving on. Once we have accepted our wrongdoings, poor judgment, or omissions it is easier for us to take steps to resolve what happened.
Give Yourself Time to Heal
Time heals all wounds. In the case of feeling regretful, time can truly help you to heal from the past. Give yourself some time to recover from the consequences of your decisions.
Constantly thinking about your regret is not helpful in your healing process. Instead, focus on things that can help you move on, and over time, the negative emotions will begin to lay low, as they are replaced with newer, more helpful, and supportive thoughts.
If you feel too overwhelmed because of your regrets, you might want to consider talking to a counselor. Seeking professional help can be beneficial, especially if your negative thoughts are becoming too intrusive and harmful.
One area of treatment that has proven very helpful is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) which can help you change destructive thought patterns.
Set New Goals for a Brighter Future
What happened in the past can no longer be changed, but we can still look forward to what the future can bring us. Setting new goals for the future can help us let go of regret.
It gives us a new purpose and meaning. Our plans for the future can help us create a new path for ourselves without the baggage of our past.
Mistakes are life’s way of letting us discover something new, in thought, action, or both. We may regret our mistakes, but dwelling on them for an extended period is not helping anyone.
You are not helping yourself, nor the person you may have committed a mistake against, but rather, regret can cause further damage to our relationships with others and ourselves.
We know that we can’t change the past, but we can always learn something from it. So use your newfound realizations in setting new goals. We can also shift our focus on the positive things that we have in our lives instead of constantly ruminating about our mistakes.
Feeling regretful is a natural emotion. But we should not let our regrets of what happened in the past to disproportionately affect our present and future.