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Regret; it’s that terrible sinking feeling you get when you have done something that you now think was “wrong.” Something that you feel negatively impacted your life or the lives of others. It’s the wishing and wanting that you had done things differently and produced a different outcome. It feels horrible because you begin to perceive the event, whatever it was, to be life-changing and irrevocable. As it becomes harder to change the situation, that regret turns into depression.
The beneficial thing about regret is that it gets your attention.
Once you become aware of what you want to do differently, there is an incredible opportunity for learning, transformation, and growth. The tricky part with regret, and the thing that keeps some people stuck on it, is that it only happens when you are looking at the past through the lens of the present. It’s evaluating an earlier event or decision with the knowledge, tools, and skills you have today and clearly didn’t have at the time. Please get this: you did your best with whatever resources you had at the moment. You know differently now so do differently!
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Although no one enjoys the feeling of regret, we all experience it at some point in our lives. It could be small, like regretting spending too much on dinners out one week and leaving yourself short for grocery money, or intense remorse like the feeling that you messed up a job interview that could have possibly led to a career-changing and/or life-changing position.
The characteristics of regret
Regret, like any gloomy emotional state, can become toxic if left unchecked and unchallenged. You start to build stories around the event, often making it bigger than it actually was or needs to be. Instead of looking at it objectively as a lesson to be learned, it becomes a defining moment that is part of your story, your identity, and who you perceive yourself to be.
So let’s break down the reality and the anatomy of regret: First, something happens or an opportunity presents itself. You react, make a choice, and take action. This can happen in seconds or months. Then, there is the outcome – you’re not happy with it. You start to think about it, going over it again and again in your mind. You analyze it, obsess over it, maybe read up on it, and talk about it with anyone who will listen. Now you have a lot more information and a more detailed perspective. You take all of this newfound awareness you have since the event occurred and judge yourself for what you didn’t know earlier. Seem fair? Not really.
The upside of feeling regret
I know it doesn’t immediately feel like it, but regret really does have an upside. According to the National Institute of Health: “Regret pushes people toward revised decision making and corrective actions that often bring improvement in life circumstances.”
There are 4 main components to getting over regret:
- Allow yourself to feel bad and mourn the loss
- Accurately assess the situation
- Let yourself off the hook
- Move on
Feel your feelings
In my experience, before you can do any of the healing work, critical thinking, or move forward, you really have to feel your feelings. Trying to push them down, ignore, or deny them just compounds the problem. Feelings are pesky and persistent, and if you push them down now, they will pop back up later, and usually at a very inconvenient time.
Assess the situation
Now that you have the feeling at least partially out of the way, let’s do some reflection. What really happened here? Remember, you are looking back at the situation with a lot more information than you went into it with, so try to take an objective view.
This is not an excuse or opportunity to beat yourself up – ever. But, you can learn a lot about how you make decisions and how to make that process better by trying to understand what went wrong.
Let yourself off the hook
This is probably the hardest yet most valuable step. A study published in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin found that self-forgiveness and acceptance are indispensable to overcoming regret. They noted that “self-compassion led to greater personal improvement.” It helps you accept that while you can’t change the past, you can certainly learn from it and create a better future.
Two words. Easy to say. Hard to do. But absolutely essential. And if you don’t do it, life will somehow do it for you – even if it’s kicking and screaming. You’ve done your best. You can’t change it. So just let it go. Trust me, there are better things ahead.
Mourn the loss
Allow yourself to feel bad and to really mourn what you’ve lost – real or perceived. Cry if the tears come up and talk it out with friends. Journalling is another great process for this. Let it out. Then, you’re ready for the next step.
Ask the tough questions
Were there red flags that you were avoiding? Were you over anxious about trying to make something work out that really wasn’t a good fit? Should you have taken more time to think things through? Were you being heavily influenced by other people’s wants, needs, or opinions, and not paying attention to your own? Answering these questions will give you clues as to whether you were really following your own inner guidance or if there is something you’d like to change moving forward.
Really, I can’t stress this enough: know that you are still a good person. People who don’t regret anything tend not to be, seriously! If you regret something it doesn’t mean you are bad or incompetent, it means that you are self-aware and growing. So give yourself a pat on the back for that!
Look for the lessons
So what did you learn about yourself from this situation? Maybe you learned something about someone else. Are you noticing patterns in your reactions? What is it that you wanted but didn’t get? This will help you focus on the next steps.
Regret will always keep you stuck in the past, a place where you have no power, and that never feels good. So what do you need to do next? What actions can you take today to start moving towards what you want? Set the boundaries, have the conversation, make a plan, send the resume, date again. Just take one step today to move forward. Truly, you’ll be glad you did.
About the Author
Certified Professional Life Coach
Hunter has an M.A. in Psychology and is a Certified Professional Life Coach. For more than 10 years, she coached clients to find and follow their passion and live their best lives. Hunter has also done youth mentoring work with Covenant House, realizing that this is such a challenging and important time in life.
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