We all experience regret, wishing we had acted differently and imaging how things could have been.
Regret plays a role in the learning process and often leads to positive action. For example, if you invite friends to your favorite restaurant to celebrate a birthday, and the service is bad, you make a mental note not to go there next time. Regret motivates many people to enter rehab, seek professional guidance, or help others to avoid making the same mistakes.
Dwelling too much on what we could or should have done, however, takes a physical and emotional toll. Like other negative emotions, regret weakens our immune response and affects our blood pressure, hormones, energy level, and sleep patterns. Regret can block us from experiencing love, pleasure, and joy in the present. It also frustrates family and friends, who see the situation differently and want us to move past it. Repeatedly thinking about what we wish we had done leads to feelings of anxiety, shame, guilt, anger, and alienation. Regret clouds our judgment, causing us to make poor decisions when we try to compensate for the past.
Regret includes a sense of sadness or loss, and an element of shame or guilt—the feeling that we are in some way personally responsible and could have prevented or changed the outcome by acting differently in the past. Imagination also play a role, when we picture what might have been if we had made a different choice.
As we go through life, we learn to process regret by letting go and moving on, or taking positive action to change our circumstances. Every day, we pass over, distort, or suppress many minor regrets, without even realizing it. Deeper regrets arise when we are unhappy with our lives, mourning a loss, or comparing ourselves to someone we admire.
Learning to process regret in a productive way contributes to our health and well-being. Here are some tips for processing regret:
It is normal to experience regret when you encounter disappointment, failure, or loss. Regret is a natural part of the grieving process. Excessive feelings of regret, however, are a symptom of depression. If you or someone you know is consumed with regret for past events, or if you begin to suffer intense regret over things that never bothered you before, talk to your physician.
What We Regret Most and Why, Neal J. Roese and Amy Summerville, National Institutes of Health (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2394712/)
Regret. GoodTherapy.org (http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/regret)