Most of us will likely experience regret to some degree or another in our lifetime.
As the saying goes, ‘ to err is to be human,’ and many people are likely to make the same mistake or repeat specific patterns many times before realizing that such behavior no longer serves them.
Regret is a universal emotion that precipitates feelings of disappointment and, depending on the nature of such remorse, shame.
According to literature, ‘regret is a feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment over an occurrence or something that someone has done or failed to do.’
We all tend to feel guilty from time to time. However, it is often the case that guilt or regret manifests out of a desire to stick to our personal values.
For example, boundary-setting can be challenging for people to stick to, especially those who veer towards people-pleasing.
Putting ourselves first is not something we have been taught to do, and often, when people decide to set boundaries with loved ones, one of the first few feelings they experience is guilt or regret.
What is regret?
According to GoodTherapy, regret, guilt, and shame are interlinked emotions, and it can often be hard to tell the difference between them.
GoodTherapy defines regret as ‘a negative emotion that arises when individuals believe that their past actions or behavior if changed, may have achieved a different outcome’ (GoodTherapy, 2015).
Feelings of regret
The literature states that regret is an emotion that gets categorized into two parts:
- A negative mental or emotional state
- Cognitive construction of an alternative decision or behavior
There are many instances where people regret things they have no control over.
Even in situations where an alternative decision or behavior was impossible, people still find new and creative ways to blame themselves for things outside of their remit.
However, researchers say that one of the keys to overcoming regret is when people learn to cultivate self-compassion.
Mental health issues
In some instances, an individual may regret not following a specific career path.
On the other hand, someone may regret the way they spoke to a parent the last time they saw them; the regret in the latter example can be consuming and can cause many mental health complications.
Regret can be a long-lasting emotion, or it can be fleeting depending on the nature of the circumstances.
Some people are plagued by constant regret, while others can move through complicated feelings quicker.
For example, a young child may feel guilty about stealing a cookie from the biscuit jar but can move through their feelings of regret with relative ease.
In contrast, another person may be consumed by feelings of guilt and regret over past mistakes or decisions about a particular situation or event.
Researchers state that since regret gets linked to the past, such emotions can create feelings of intense sorrow because people cannot go back and change what they did or how they behaved.
Regret can be a helpful emotion
All this may sound counter-intuitive, but when we experience regret, such feelings, as unpleasant as they might be, can be helpful.
Regret is often the learning experience many of us need to improve specific behaviors or actions that may not serve us.
In many ways, regret is a valuable emotion since it signals the need for corrective action.
Seeing things differently
When we experience regret, we also get insight and understanding to improve future decision-making skills.
For example, if someone uses offensive language at us, instead of reacting, we take a few steps back and return to the situation with a calmer, more rational approach.
In many ways, regret can be the nutrient we need to improve the way we navigate our internal and external worlds – especially when others demonstrate disrespect towards us.
Essentially, we learn from our past mistakes, and through the pain of regret, we cultivate a more empowering approach.
How to overcome regret
Fortunately, there are many ways that people can learn to overcome regret.
As mentioned, regret can be a powerful platform in which people are motivated to make significant changes to their life by modifying how they approach specific situations.
The key to managing regret is to re-frame how we perceive and respond to external stimuli.
Ten ways to effectively manage regret
- Do not obsess over past mistakes: When people chastise themselves for past mistakes, they can’t move forward with clarity. Antagonizing over mistakes will compromise your ability to learn from them. Therefore, people must use mistakes as opportunities to learn and be inspired to make new and better choices.
- Take stock of how you cope with regret: By evaluating your decisions that ended in shame, you better understand how to avoid those choices in the future. Ruminating over mistakes amplifies feelings of regret, so you must take a step back and remember that whatever bad choices you made are in the past.
- Practice self-compassion: Self-compassion helps prompt self-forgiveness. The mistakes you made are in the past, and if you wouldn’t make those exact choices in a similar situation today, you are incriminating an innocent person. Learn to forgive yourself.
- Create new goals and objectives: Instead of obsessing over past mistakes and making yourself feel bad, perhaps you could consider setting a new goal or plan for the future. Celebrate when you meet your goals or respond better to situations and create more positive outcomes.
- Acknowledge your feelings: You take power out of them by acknowledging and accepting your feelings. In any event, when you might have been wrong, the ability to recognize and re-frame those experiences puts you in the driver’s seat.
- Do things that make you feel good: A new opportunity or focus will help distract you from the negative feelings of regret. Why not get busy and write that book you’ve been thinking of writing, or perhaps get in touch with an old friend? Positive distractions can be profoundly valuable, and you are less likely to ruminate over the past if you are too busy enjoying yourself!
- Allow yourself to heal from the past: Give yourself time to replenish and heal. Whether it’s a lost relationship or something you could have done better, the past is over, and being stuck in stress and worry will only keep you locked in unhelpful cycles.
- Consider having therapy: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is effective in helping people manage any self-destructive thoughts and emotions by redirecting any negative impulses into more constructive ways of thinking and behaving.
- Practice mindfulness: By being present with your feelings, you learn to accept whatever unpleasant sensations that might be associated. Mindfulness is an excellent way to manage anxiety-fueled emotions, particularly if you struggle to acknowledge past mistakes.
- Stay active: Exercise is known to reduce anxiety and depression and is suitable for our mental health in general. If you feel stuck in a cycle of regret and guilt, it may be helpful to engage in the process of physical activity. Perhaps you could consider taking up running or joining the gym?
Speaking to a mental health professional
Living with the effects of deep regret can create all kinds of health problems.
Nearly everyone makes mistakes in life – but for those who cannot move past their mistakes or see a future beyond what may have happened, it might be helpful to seek professional help.
If you struggle to deal with the adverse implications of regret, you may find counseling or talk therapy beneficial. There are many treatment options available to help those dealing with regret, such as:
- Talk therapy
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy
- Trauma treatment
- One to one counseling
- Treatment for substance abuse issues (for those suffering from alcohol or drug addiction)
Get in touch
Other ways of dealing with the adverse effects of regret are speaking to a close friend about any problematic emotions, keeping a journal, and acknowledging that you won’t always feel this way.
One thing in life is inevitable; nothing stays the same forever, and the same goes for our feelings.
If you feel you would benefit from therapy or any other treatment, please get in touch with one of our specialists who can help.