The sources of the regrets we experience are many and varied. They can come from spur-of-the-moment actions, such as speaking before thinking or acting in response to out-of-control emotions. They can result from failing to intervene when our actions might have prevented needless hurt or provided needed help. Regret can also grow from life decisions with long-term consequences such as ignoring important factors before making choices, allowing fear and uncertainty to keep us from pursuing an important goal or life opportunity, or failing to recognize the signs and symptoms of an unhealthy relationship. In short, regret can result from both what we do and what we do not do, and it can result in missed opportunities and lead to negative consequences for others and us.
Regret is one of our most frequently felt emotions and can influence our emotional, cognitive, and physical well-being. It can lead to feelings of guilt, disappointment, and helplessness. Regret can also have a negative impact on our physical health through lack of sleep and loss of appetite. Furthermore, regret can even make us vulnerable to illnesses.
So, what can we do when we experience regret? Here are some steps to consider.
If it is not too late, we can fix the situation. If we need to apologize, we should do it quickly and sincerely. The sooner we act, the better able we are to prevent ongoing regret. If our regret originates from a life decision, we can examine whether there still are opportunities to change our course and correct the situation. We may regret a decision about the direction of our education, engaging in a relationship, or making a career change; yet, there may remain opportunities to pursue a direction that leads to an equally satisfying outcome. Acting to counter or correct situations causing regret can be the best antidote.
We can accept our feelings. We may need to give ourselves some time to heal. Meanwhile, we can direct our energy to something productive, and doing so will make us feel good. Creating a distraction can make us less apt to ruminate on our regrets, particularly in the short term.
When our regret involves a decision pertaining to our life’s direction, we can resist idealizing the path not chosen. Even though we may encounter frustrations and setbacks in the path we have chosen, the path not chosen would likely offer an equal measure of disappointments and struggles. We can also step back and reflect on the information we had at the point of deciding. Realizing that we made the best decision we could have made, considering what we knew at the time, can help us to let go and move forward.
We can resist making excuses. We may believe that excuses justify our behavior in the eyes of others, but we know better. Excuses do little to improve the situation, and we continue to feel the regret.
We can forgive ourselves. If we find self-forgiveness too difficult, we can choose to focus elsewhere and to engage in activities that can offer satisfaction and make our lives—and others’ lives—better. We may not be able to change the past, but we can create a future that is more productive, satisfying, and impactful.
If the source of our regret cannot be rectified, we can focus on what we can learn and how we can avoid repeating the same mistake in the future. A bad choice in the past does not mean we cannot, or will not, make better choices in the future. However, obsessing can compromise our ability to make the best decisions in circumstances we have yet to face.
We can use the experience to set new goals. How will we respond to similar situations in the future? What can we do to create more positive outcomes with the decisions we make? Setting and working toward worthy goals can offer an effective counterbalance to our regret.
Over time, our feelings of regret, if handled in a healthy manner, can lead us to better understand why we thought and acted in the way we did. Our insights can lead to less guilt and pain; as a result, we can then gain new insights about how we can better handle similar situations in the future. Additionally, our insights can lead us to be more forgiving of others when their actions result in hurt and disappointment for us. So, while feelings of regret might be inevitable, what steps we take to move past them can ultimately benefit us and those around us and pave the way for growth.