Regret is a universal emotional response experienced when “the outcome of a decision is worse than the outcome of an option foregone.”1 Fortunately, there are many techniques you can learn and use as ways to cope with, understand, and manage feelings of regret when they arise. Mental health professionals with a specialty in cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help with this process.
In the course of a lifetime, people will experience regrets both large and small. These regrets can lead to motivation for personal growth or they can take you down a pathway to depression and self-chastisement. How regrets are managed can make a real difference in terms of understanding and coping with these difficult feelings.
Here are ten useful tips on how to deal with regret:
1. Acknowledge Your Feelings
Acknowledge and accept the feelings associated with your regret. This helps prompt you to think about strategies you could use to minimize the pain of similar future experiences.2
Specifically identifying or acknowledging which emotion you’re feeling (“I feel regret”) rather than just thinking (“I feel bad”) will help make you tolerate the emotions you’re experiencing.2
2. Avoid Obsessing About Past Regrets
Try to learn from a past decision that you perceive has gone wrong. If you continue to chastise yourself with past regrets, it will compromise your ability to make better decisions in the present and the future. Obsessing about regrets will only make you feel worse. Use this as an opportunity to learn and even inspire yourself to make new and better choices in the future.
3. Assess How You Cope With Your Regrets
Take time to evaluate the choice that ended in regret. Did you blame others, minimize your feelings, or ignore them altogether? These techniques tend to amplify feelings of regret and make them harder to cope with. Take a deep breath and remember, that choice you made is in the past.
4. Show Yourself Some Kindness
Having made a bad choice in the past does not mean you are forever doomed to repeat this mistake over and over again. Give yourself permission to tackle a similar situation again with the benefit of experience and hopefully a better understanding about how to react in a more positive fashion.
5. Give Yourself Time to Heal From a Past Regret
If your regret is related to a major past decision, you need to give yourself time to heal from the consequences of that choice. Constantly thinking about it and ruminating will keep the negative thoughts and feelings ever-present. Focus on things that will relax, nourish, and energize you in positive ways. In time, the negative emotions will begin to subside.
6. Distract Yourself
Focus your mind and energy on a project with an outcome that will make you feel good. Spend time with people you feel comfortable with and who you can candidly talk with. If you are focused on a current positive distraction, you are less apt to ruminate about past regrets.
7. Create a New Set of Goals
Use the knowledge and experience you gained to make new, realistic goals. Ask yourself if there is anything you can do to repair the old damage, respond to future situations, and create more positive outcomes. Celebrate when you meet a goal. If you learn that a goal you set is not realistic, set a new one within the realm of more realistic possibilities.
8. Consider Counseling
If you find yourself stuck in a repeating cycle of self-blame and negative thinking, you may need outside professional help to stop this harmful behavioral pattern. Consider getting help from a therapist.
9. Ask Yourself Hard Questions About the Situation
Psychologist Suma Chand, PhD recommends asking yourself a series of questions as a way to move forward from regret and create healthier behavioral patterns. The questions are:3
- Have you noticed how excessive regret affects what you do and say?
- Could you have acted any differently considering the particular stage in your life and the information and experiences you had until this point in your life?
- Was it only you or did anything else contribute to your mistake?
- Was there anything specific in the situation that you particularly regret?
- As a result of this regretful experience, have you changed the way you behave and respond in similar situations?
- Is there anything you can do now that will make a difference in how you think and feel about a future situation that you may regret?
10. Recognize the Physical & Emotional Toll Regret Can Cause
Repeated regretful feelings can negatively affect your mental health, causing depression, diminished focus, low self-esteem, and feelings of helplessness. They can also cause lack of sleep, loss of appetite, and headaches. Research on continual regret and the associated medical consequences in older adults reveals that it can cause vulnerability to physical symptoms like chest or joint pain, headaches, or shortness of breath, as well as the potential for worsening chronic illnesses like heart disease.4
Intensity of Regret
Researchers have studied intensity of regret, finding it’s often based on three variables, including whether the regretful decision was an action or inaction, the degree to which the decision was justifiable, and the life domain or social group of the regret. They discovered that regrets associated with the latter group were felt more deeply because they threatened a person’s sense of belonging to a meaningful group.5
What Kinds of Choices Do We Regret?
The choices we make in a lifetime that can result in regretful feelings fall into numerous categories, including education, career, romance, parenting, the self, having or not having children, and leisure. When a regretful decision is viewed in terms of it being a missed or mishandled life opportunity that won’t come back, the level of regret is higher.6
Does Regret Change as We Get Older?
Younger people are presented with more frequent choices and a wider range of decisions that need to be made, leading to more chances for regret. Researchers concluded that seniors rarely produce regretful actions or decisions that are centered around personal actions. As opportunities fade with advancing years, so do the most painful and self-recriminating regrets, to be replaced instead by “neutered regrets focusing rarely on personal action.”6
How Therapy Can Help
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a short-term therapeutic treatment that is used to help people break ongoing negative patterns of thinking in regard to regret. It is used to help patients alter and reshape negative thoughts and feelings, resulting in a more positive outcome. It can also help enhance communication skills.
Look for a mental health professional with specialty training in teaching coping skills associated with CBT. You can find a therapist in your area by going to an online therapist directory.
Final Thoughts on Dealing With Regret
We only experience regret over a bad outcome when, at some point in time, we could have prevented the negative outcome.7 If you don’t take the opportunity to develop, change, and grow from a negative experience, regret can become all-consuming. Identify why your regret is so profound and how it reveals more about your personal values and feelings. Doing so can create greater self-understanding, more meaning, and purpose.