The idea of no regrets sounds so good in theory, and it certainly holds merit in modern society. It's become a catch-all phrase that people justify when they knowingly make bad decisions. And it's also become a way we gaslight ourselves- if you feel remorse over something, you might work hard to convince yourself you shouldn't feel that way.
Research, however, shows that regrets are completely normal and that they can be harnessed in productive and healthy ways. With that in mind, learning how to bolster your regrets into building a more meaningful life is key.
What Are Regrets?
Regret is an umbrella term for self-blame or frustration about a past decision. When you regret something, you wish you would have chosen a different path.
Research shows there are four main types of regret:
Foundation regrets: Foundation regret involves negative emotions about the foundation you built for yourself. This regret often sounds like, I wish I had eaten healthier, exercised more, or worn sunscreen. In day-to-day life, these small choices rarely amount to much. It's only when you start experiencing consequences does the regret become more intensified.
Boldness regrets: Boldness regrets may start with the words, If only had I... In other words, there's regret about the choices you didn't make. Maybe you didn't start that business or tell your crush how you felt. You now acknowledge these missed opportunities and wish you had seized them.
Moral regrets: Moral regret entails acting against your morals or integrity. Maybe you lied or stole or otherwise hurt someone you loved. Even if you justified the decision at first, it now sounds like, I did the wrong thing.
Connection regrets: Connection regrets involve people. Maybe you regret not having a closer relationship with your parents or children. Perhaps you feel guilty that you didn't pursue certain friendships more.
These regrets also range in intensity. You might mildly regret that you didn't fill up your gas tank after driving home from work when you wake up late the next morning. But you might seriously regret that you stole money from your parents when you were active in drug addiction.
Why No Regrets Isn't the Point
Although a world of perfect decisions sounds nice, it's far from realistic. Here are some reasons why regrets are both helpful and meaningful for everyone.
Regrets Mean You're Human
Regret is a normal part of survival. It's one of those complex emotional experiences distinguishing humans from other animals. Regret requires higher-level thinking and planning. To not have regret would likely indicate that you're either a very young child or that you've experienced brain impairment.
The negative emotions associated with regret (shame, fear, sadness, guilt) are part of the basic spectrum of what it means to be human.
Regrets Can Help You Plan Better
Your regret acts as fuel for coding how you want to act differently next time. The reality is that we're presented with infinite paths in this lifetime. At any given moment, you must make a decision that nullifies millions of other decisions. You don't consciously think through most of these choices, but it would be impossible to "get it right" every single time.
If you truly had no regrets, you wouldn't practice much critical thinking in your everyday choices. You wouldn't outweigh a potentially poor decision against an alternative decision.
Positive emotions feel good, but we tend to learn the most through our negative emotions. When we truly feel remorse about something, we often want to plan better for the future. And over time, that's how monumental change happens.
Regrets Can Improve Motivation
People who experience regret over past decisions may feel more motivated to avoid making those same decisions later on. In this sense, feeling regret acts as a catalyst for changing your patterns.
For example, let's say that you regret neglecting your body. For years, you didn't eat or sleep well, and now you feel like your body is falling apart. Your regret may motivate you to start nourishing and taking care of yourself better. You don't want to experience more health-related consequences, so you have a greater initiative to focus on your physical well-being.
What Should You Do When You Feel Regret?
Experiencing regret doesn't feel good, but it's important to learn how to cope with this experience productively. While regret is inevitable, you may eventually get to a place where you experience less regret and more acceptance of who you are and what you've done.
Paradoxically, if you struggle to accept the role regret has in your life, you may be prone to self-destructive tendencies or repeating the same unwanted mistakes.
Here are some strategies to keep in mind:
Let Yourself Feel Your Negative Feelings
Regret sometimes feels painful, but try to get in the habit of allowing yourself to experience that emotion fully. Learning how to absorb your feelings lets them pass appropriately.
Ask yourself, What am I feeling right now? When have I felt this way in the past? What bodily sensations do I notice? What thoughts accompany these feelings?
Mindfulness and meditation can help you stay in the present moment. You don't need to wallow in pity or sadness, but you should try to sit with the discomfort. If you find yourself wanting to give in to various distractions, notice the urge and try to avoid acting on it.
Acknowledge Your Wrongdoing
If you feel regretful about something you did to someone, you may want to consider making amends to that person. This act shouldn't be done to secure forgiveness. It should be done as a way to hold yourself accountable and determine how you can act differently in the future.
Most people want to give others the benefit of the doubt. You model humility and compassion when you can honestly admit to making a mistake. And you can avoid the problem of experiencing more regret by not saying anything at all.
Try to Limit Self-Blame and Focus on Growth Instead
We can be merciless when it comes to making mistakes. We're often much harder on ourselves than we are on other people.
Forgiveness doesn't mean letting yourself off the hook or suppressing how you feel. It does, however, mean that you will move towards a sense of acceptance for what you did. Holding onto internal anger and shame will wreck your mental health.
Try to put your actions into context and be mindful of falling into traps of all-or-nothing or perfectionistic thinking. At any given moment, most of us make the best decision with the information that we have. Furthermore, we're generally trying to avoid pain.
To practice more self-kindness, consider asking yourself these questions:
What would I tell my friend or romantic partner if they were feeling mad at themselves right now?
Regardless of what happened, what did I learn from this experience?
How can I still make the most of this specific outcome?
In the long run, how much will this specific action matter?
How can I try to reduce the possibility of future regret from what I've learned today?
Sometimes bad decisions have permanent consequences, and living with that reality can be incredibly hard. If you are struggling with your current circumstances, or if your regrets seem all-consuming, consider speaking to a therapist.
Therapy can help you be mindful of future regrets, and it can offer a supportive space for processing painful mistakes. In addition, therapy can provide a working framework for self-improvement. You can learn to live life more authentically and wholeheartedly- even in the face of your regrets.
What If Your Past Mistakes Are Holding You Back?
You can't avoid regret, but learning to move on from past actions is an important part of any recovery process. That said, if certain decisions are significantly impacting your quality of life- or if you feel entirely stuck in negative feelings- it may be time to seek more support.
Ruminating regret can exacerbate anxiety, depression, and it may reinforce compulsive behaviors like substance use or disordered eating. We understand how feelings of regret can maintain a sense of stuckness, and our dynamic program is designed to help people practice mor self-compassion while learning better strategies for making future decisions.
We are here for you or your loved ones. Contact us today to get in touch with our team!