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Six best ways to deal with regrets

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Having regrets is part of being alive. We all have them.

Common thoughts and feelings of regret are something like “I wish I’d told him I loved him”; “If only I’d worked harder at college I would be doing better”; “Why wasn’t I around more when my children were growing up?”; and “I really should’ve asked her out for a date…”

Recently a person who worked in a hospice wrote what the dying people there told her were their greatest regrets. What came out was working too much.

Another was waiting to allow themselves to be happy. Then there was the regret of not doing and trying things they’d wanted to try.

There was also a documentary made in Europe in the 1980s in which octogenarians were asked what their biggest regret in life was. It wasn’t as might be expected of trying things that had failed, sometimes spectacularly such as with the loss of a great amount of money.

It was in fact not trying certain things. And now for them it was too late.

A few years ago a video called “What’s your biggest regret?” was posted on YouTube. It was a short video about people writing down their biggest regrets on a chalkboard in the middle of New York City.

As the chalkboard filled up, it could be seen that all the responses had one aspect in common. They were about chances not taken, words not spoken, dreams that were never pursued.

It concluded that if we rubbed out these regrets it would give a clean slate. That would then allow us to do the things we’d regret not doing.

What is regret?

Regrets are created from thoughts, mostly memories, that make negative feelings. As with any thought – good or bad – if we continue to focus on it, it will only grow to get bigger. 

A vicious cycle can follow where the negative feeling makes us feel inwardly bad. So the negative thoughts and the feelings we get from it intensifies.

Obviously it’s not a good place to be. Our energy will drain from us.

As well, if someone has addiction issues, this can be a very dangerous place to be. They may well reach for whatever it is they know will change the way they feel.

Of course this is futile as the negative feelings will only return at some point. Quite possibly there will be new regrets to add, following from such as using again and any behaviors that might have happened while doing so. 

The word “regret” itself is from Old French regreter  that actually means “bewail the dead”. The feeling we get from focussing on regrets is much like this – one of great sadness and disappointment about something.

It is strongly linked to remorse. This word is from Latin mordere meaning “to bite”. So when we have remorse it is as if we are biting away at ourselves, gnawing at our insides.

Clearly it is beneficial to our emotional health that we deal with our regrets.

So this is what you can do to help yourself:

1. Allow what you are feeling

Our feelings serve a purpose – they are not there just to make us feel pain for no reason. If we didn’t have such feelings we’d never learn and grow.

We’d be much more likely to repeat the same mistakes. So feel the feeling, acknowledge the inner ache.

Accept that it’s there. But also realize that just because it’s there at that moment doesn’t mean it will be there forever.

As with all pain, it’s there to get your attention. Ask yourself what is it trying to teach you; where is it directing you?

Maybe it is a signpost for you towards working on such as self-confidence, self-esteem and self-belief. Perhaps you will conclude that you have to get out of your comfort zone.

Also, recognize that rather than thinking: “I feel bad” say to yourself: “I am experiencing a feeling of regret.” That will make it easier to manage.

2. Ask is this regret justified?

One of the things about being human is that we all make mistakes. So perhaps what you are regretting is just a mistake you made at the time.

Realize that you’re not the only one in the world who makes mistakes. A million or more mistakes are being made right now!

Also, it’s beneficial to know that most people have a battle in their minds between some of their thoughts and reality.

Our regrets are frequently thoughts that tell us of a certain outcome if only we’d done things differently. But this is not always so.

Bestselling book The Midnight Library by Matt Haig tells the story of a young woman who is so consumed with regrets that she ends her life. But instead of dying she arrives in a library that’s somewhere between life and death.

This library contains an infinite number of books. Each one is the story of another life she could have had if she’d only made different choices.

She selects a few of the books thinking that if only she’d moved to that other country or continued being in a band or kept her commitment to becoming an Olympic swimmer – then she would never have reached that point where she wanted to end it all as she just had.

But she discovers that her different lives didn’t go as she imagined either. She starts to realize that in fact she has plenty to be grateful for in her life as it is, and she has the choice to continue living it.

Spending time regretting the past won’t change it. What it is guaranteed to do though is ruin the present moment.

That’s why it’s a healthy habit to try to live in the now, one day at a time.

3. Accept yourself for who you were then

There’s an exceptional phrase that goes: “There are times I look back on my life and I could have done it much better, but I just have to remember I wasn’t able to at the time.” 

Basically we all make the best decisions and choices we can at the time. There’s never a moment in the past where we thought: I’ll make a terrible decision on purpose here.

So it helps to realize that at the time you probably couldn’t have acted any differently considering the stage in life, the information and experiences you had, up to that moment.

Accept that if anyone had walked in your shoes taking the exact same steps you had in life until then, they too would have most likely made the exact same choices.

4. Ask if it was only about you

Take into consideration what other factors contributed to the decision or situation you regret. Consider that it was perhaps not all in your hands anyway.

For instance, someone might regret not going to a particular college. But perhaps at that time their mother was very ill so they made the decision to stay and help at home.

You might decide when you reflect on this that at the time – for who and where you were and with the circumstances – you actually made absolutely the right decision.

It is always useful to talk over these sorts of things with a therapist to hear your story played back. It is then for the first time that many people realize that what they’ve been regretfully thinking for years and the reality are not the same. 

5. Focus on what you did right

Break the regret down. It is quite possibly not anywhere near as big as it seems in your mind.

6. Believe that you can grow

There’s a phrase that says: “There’s no such things as bad things; just things to learn and grow from.” It might not always be true, but there is a good point to it. 

Having regrets can freeze us. They can cause us to become fearful of doing the wrong thing and creating even more regrets.

This becomes more likely if there is already a build-up of regrets. So it is always advantageous to deal with any regrets.

Perhaps this might involve making amends to someone. It also involves forgiving yourself.

It is to know that what happens to us can shape and make us stronger. It can allow us to find greater resolve.

Our experienced team has years of expertise in treating all emotional issues and mental health problems. We offer proven treatments that can help anyone in need.

We are nestled in the ideal natural setting to enhance wellbeing. Our luxury mansion sat right beside a beautiful tranquil lake is created with your total relaxation in mind.

Contact us today to speak about how we can help you or someone you love.

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David Hurst

David Hurst has four books published on mental health recovery, including 12 Steps To 1 Hero, The Anxiety Conversation and Words To Change Your Life. He has written for national newspapers and magazines around the world for 30 years including The Guardian, Psychologies, GQ, Esquire, Marie Claire and The Times. He has been in successful continual recovery since January 2002.

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