None of us can look back when we’re at the end of our life and say, “I was exactly the kind of person I wanted to be.” Everyone has regrets. It’s easy in hindsight to see the road signs we missed. The forks in the road we could’ve taken. To think about all the bad decisions we made.
Regret is a negative cognitive and emotional state that involves blaming ourselves for a bad outcome, feeling a sense of loss or sorrow at what might have been, or wishing we could undo a previous choice we made. For young people, regret, although painful to experience, can be a helpful emotion. The pain of regret can result in refocusing and taking corrective action or pursuing a new path. However, the less opportunity we have to change the situation, the more likely it is that regret can turn into rumination and chronic stress that can damage the mind and body.
Researcher Neal Roese of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University is a leader in the field of regret research. His studies of younger people have shown that regret was rated more favorably than unfavorably, primarily because of its informational value in motivating corrective action. Interestingly, regret was rated highest of a list of negative emotions in making sense of the world, avoiding future negative behaviors, gaining insight, achieving social harmony, and improving your ability to approach desired opportunities.
Regret can have damaging effects on mind and body when it turns into fruitless rumination and self-blame that keeps you from re-engaging with life. This pattern of repetitive, negative, self-focused ruminative thinking is characteristic of depression. Other research, reported in the AARP Newsletter, indicates that regret can result in chronic stress, which can negatively affect hormonal and immune system functioning. Regret impedes the ability to recover from stressful life events by extending their emotional reach for months or years.
What can you do to cope with regret? First of all, it is important to harness the functional aspects of regret. Regret, like all emotions, has a function for survival. It is our brain’s way of telling us to take another look at our choices. It’s a signal that our actions may be leading to negative consequences. Regret is a major reason why addicts get into recovery.
If you get stuck blaming yourself and regretting past actions, it can lead to depression and damage your self-esteem. You have to find a way to forgive yourself and let it go. Try thinking about what you would say to a friend in the same situation to make them feel better. Most people have an easier time forgiving others than forgiving themselves. Try thinking about life as a journey. Everybody makes mistakes, and these can be opportunities to learn important lessons about yourself, your ways of reacting, your values, your vulnerabilities and your triggers.
When you find yourself focusing on regret, shape your thoughts by exploring the silver lining in whatever you did. Ask yourself what lessons you learned. Figure out how you gained wisdom out of a particular situation. In the case of an unhappy marriage, for example, celebrate the children that came from it. That doesn’t change anything about the marriage, but it makes it easier to live with the situation.
Regret happens when you don’t forgive yourself. When your mistake feels final, like going too fast on a highway and then getting a speeding ticket. It is too easy to feel regret. However, forgiveness is a powerful catalyst. Forgiveness is one of the most loving actions you can take for yourself. While regret holds you back in the past, forgiveness helps you move forward. Tell yourself that was part of who you were then. The mistake can help you grow into a better person. Forgive yourself and resolve to move forward. Send negative feelings about your actions into the past where the action occurred. They don’t do you any good now.
Let go of the past and build a better future.