We all have regrets. Big or small, recent or rooted in a long ago incident, these are regrets we mostly wish we didn’t have. We wish we hadn’t made that choice, taken or not taken that life-changing action, behaved that way.
But perhaps we should not wish them away so quickly. Regret, according to Neal Roese, Ph.D., author of If Only: How to Turn Regret Into Opportunity, is an essential mental skill. “Regret is useful,” Roese writes, “for signaling to people that it’s time to change their strategy.”
When we allow our regretted choices to inform us and affect our behavior, they can be seen not only in the context of what is lost, but also what could be gained, and can serve as motivation to move forward.
Living with nagging regret as our daily companion, however, can become a burden that restricts our future and corrodes our self-esteem and emotional well-being. Even small regrets diminish our contentment and keep us from living in the present. In the case of crippling regrets, the results can be devastating. Psychologists have linked severe regret with a wide variety of mental and physical disorders, including sleep and mood problems, migraines, and skin conditions.
The pain of regret can be eased by taking certain steps:
Clearly examine the regret. Step back from the feelings and determine why you did what you did. How can you learn from your error? Was there even an error to begin with? Did your action or non-action cause real harm to yourself or others? Is your dwelling on regret causing more harm than the action/inaction did?
If you regret a path not chosen, imagine how your life might be if you had chosen that path. Now, think of all the joys in your current life that you wouldn’t have if you had taken the other path.
Grieve, if necessary. Fully experiencing the feelings of regret will help you move forward. Tell the truth about your powerlessness to change the past, and empower yourself in the present by making peace with the regret. Write it down, burn the paper or bury it in the earth, and then forget about it.
Accept the way it is. Recognize what you have learned and let it be final. Anything you have done is forgivable. Remember you’re not alone; we’ve all made mistakes!
Do something about it. If the circumstances warrant it, ask for forgiveness and make amends. Take responsibility for anything you could have handled better. If you can, reverse the regretted behavior. No matter what your age, go back to school or pick up that trumpet you gave up after high school. Say “I love you” to your sibling.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Make the most of your regrets…. To regret deeply is to live afresh.” No matter how many years later, learn the lessons of your regrets, redirect your course or not—and open the door to a fresh start.