Regret Can Undermine Your Well-Being

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:

  • Accept that you cannot change the past. You cannot go back and do it again. 
  • Embrace your current situation. However unpleasant, restricted, disappointing, and even frightening your current circumstances are, this is where you are. Instead of anguishing over past events, devote your mental energies to improving the present. 
  • Evaluate the circumstances around the actions you blame yourself for. Chances are you were not as directly responsible as you think. You were inexperienced, influenced by your environment, affected by the other people involved, and at a different stage in your life. At the time, there were legitimate reasons for the decisions you made. 
  • Take positive steps to avoid making the same mistakes again. 
  • Forgive yourself. Enjoy the good memories, and come to terms with bad ones. 
  • View life as an educational process. Overcoming mistakes contributes to your growth as a person. Your past experiences have made you who you are. You have gained knowledge, understanding, empathy, and wisdom. Whatever opportunity was lost, it left a space in your life for other experiences and new people. 
  • Take your own advice. Think of all the comforting things you would say to a friend experiencing this kind of regret, and repeat them to yourself.
  • Do not be deceived by your imagination. It is easy to fantasize about what might have happened if you had done things differently, but there is no guarantee that things would have turned out that way.

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. 

Further reading:

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)

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