When you’re bombarded with social media at every waking moment—AKA photos of people living their best lives (supposedly)—it’s easy to begin to feel unsatisfied with the trajectory of your life. People tend to portray their most ideal selves on their profiles, so it’s only natural to look back at a lovey-dovey photo of you and your ex and think, “Why did that relationship end? We looked so happy.” Or you could wonder what would’ve happened if you didn’t turn down that opportunity over a year ago once you see that a friend just made an exciting career move. In other words: Social media can lead to an avalanche of “What if?” thoughts, which can leave you feeling not-so-pleasant.
That uncomfortable, gut-level feeling has a name: regret, and it’s not fun for anyone. But, like any emotion, it has a purpose—it sends you a message about what you should do with your behavior, and indicates that something is occurring in your environment. Essentially it’s a flag that you need to work through something. To help, I tapped licensed social worker Shannon Thomas and clinical psychologist Dr. Lara Fielding for the 411 on the all-too-common feeling that can plague you.
“Regret stems from a major disappointment that things haven’t worked out—that deep, soul-level disappointment that things aren’t different,” says Thomas. She believes that hindsight really is twenty-twenty. “Sometimes it’s about having to step back and realize that you did what you did with the information you had. You made the choices that you did, and then hindsight sometimes can be really a lot more clear, but you don’t have all that information at the beginning.” Good point.
“Sometimes it’s about having to step back and realize that you did what you did with the information you had.” —Shannon Thomas
Regret is related to loss and sadness, too. Dr. Fielding suggests that the feeling of regret isn’t inherently bad, despite how it feels—it’s just that the way people handle and process it usually doesn’t do them any favors. “Regret, like sadness, can be related to inflammation,” she says. “When you have [inflammation], it chronically causes all types of problems like even physical pain.” In order to positively deal with the feeling—and keep inflammation from cropping up—they shared four pro steps to ensure that you process regret the healthy way.
1. Verbalize what you’re feeling
Dr. Fielding says that the first step in letting go of regret is honoring and naming your emotion—as in, let yourself feel anger and sadness and whatever else that comes up. Then find a word or phrase for what that feeling is. Is it just a case of FOMO, or is it something deeper? “When you find the right emotion word for what you’re feeling, it actually activates the orbital prefrontal cortex that connects down to your emotion center in your brain–your amygdala,” she says. So this means that your brain then makes a connection through that zeroing in, and you can move past that initial sadness that’s blocking you from seeing the whole picture.
“Rather than just swirling in shame and blame, really put your thoughts down into concrete words of disappointment,” adds Thomas. “Be able to identify why you’re sad, or be able to call it out and really narrow it down to what it is you’re actually feeling.” It helps to make the matter—which can feel overwhelming—into a more digestible thing you can handle.
2. Ask yourself if the regret is justified
The next action to do, says Dr. Fielding, is to take a step back and ask yourself, could there be something that’s good from not getting that thing you wanted, or not doing that thing that you thought you wanted to? “Check those thoughts—check their accuracy and see if there’s an alternative way of looking at it,” she says. “But just stay anchored in the present moment, because regret is really a past time-traveling kind of activity in your thoughts. Certainly you want to honor that emotion, but the flexibility is that you want to honor, and come back.” So allow that imagination game to take hold, picture the positive potential, and acknowledge it.
Dwelling too much on the past won’t necessarily help your future (of course), so be sure to continually recognize what’s good in your life now—surely when you sit down to think about it, there’s plenty. This will remind you to stay rooted in the moment.
3. Take some time to sit in your emotion
Letting go of things right away isn’t always the key to mastering positive mental health, surprisingly. Thomas and Dr. Fielding both believe that you should take some time to mourn whatever lost experience it is that’s making you feel regretful. “You have to have a season of regretting it,” says Thomas. “I think it’s just like the grieving cycle, like if there’s something that has happened that we’ve missed out on or have wasted time doing something else and we’re regretful, I think we have to give ourselves a natural grieving process.”
Depending on your situation, you could be in this stage for a while. Regretting a haircut is going to look a lot different than regretting the way a relationship ended. “It drives me nuts when people say, ‘When you’re ready you can let go,'” says Dr. Fielding. “Definitely no. You’ll never be ready, because chewing on old pain is a little bit like biting down on a toothache. It feels terrible but it’s familiar. So you’re never going to be ready—you have to be willing to step out.” Though everyone may love quick fixes and simple rules to follow, the reality of regret is that there’s not a set timeline for when the feeling will go away.
“The prescription for how much validation and honoring of the pain you need to do is going to be unique to each, but the question is: Is what you’re doing working towards manifesting that value now?” says Dr. Fielding. “Ask yourself if it’s working in your life right now, or if it’s just adding to more regret about time lost or things you’re not doing that’s keeping you stuck in that regret.”
4. Remember that regret isn’t a “bad” emotion
As uncomfortable as it may feel, regret can actually serve an excellent purpose in your life if you use it for productivity to learn more about who you are (who knew?). “Regret helps us see what we don’t want to do, and as long as we don’t let that become a self-hatred or a burden to us, we can really allow it to teach us things,” says Thomas, who notes that the emotional process is really all about stepping back to see the humanity of it all.
“Look at the fact that we make choices and we make decisions based on what’s in front of us at the moment,” she says. So whenever you feel that pang of regret, don’t shrink away—let yourself feel it. Otherwise, you’ll…er…regret it. (Had to.)
Now that you’re the queen of mastering regret, here’s how to be more patient, according to mental health gurus. Plus, if you’re having trouble catching ZZZs, fear (or FOMO) could be behind your sleep troubles.
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