- Amy Silver, PsyD, clinical psychologist based in Australia
- Lara Fielding, PhD, clinical psychologist based in Beverly Hills, CA
- Robert Enright, PhD, psychologist and co-founder of the International Forgiveness Institute
- Shai Davidai, PhD, social psychologist and assistant professor at Columbia Business School
- Shannon Thomas, LCSW, trauma therapist and author of Healing from Hidden Abuse
“Regret stems from a deep, soul-level disappointment that things haven’t worked out because of something you said or did,” says trauma therapist Shannon Thomas, LCSW. But, of course, hindsight is 20/20—and our vision of any given situation in the moment tends to be far less clear. “Sometimes, learning how to deal with regret is about having to step back and realize that you did what you did with the information you had at that time.”
“Learning how to deal with regret is about having to step back and realize that you did what you did with the information you had at that time.” —Shannon Thomas, LCSW, trauma therapist
In many cases, regret is also related to sadness or the loss of what is no longer. But that doesn’t make the emotion an inherently negative one, either. It’s just that the way people handle it doesn’t usually do them many favors, says clinical psychologist Lara Fielding, PhD. For starters, ruminating on regret or harping on the “what if’s” tends to create an unproductive thought spiral. Below, the experts share advice for how to deal with regret in a way that’s far more constructive, without minimizing the gravity of the feeling.
Here's how to deal with regret of any kind, according to therapists and psychologists
1. Define the negative emotion you’re feeling
As with any painful feeling, simply acknowledging and naming exactly what it is can be a helpful first step to dealing with it. Let yourself feel the anger and the sadness and whatever else comes up when you think about something you regret, says Dr. Fielding. And then name it: Is it 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 to your emotion center in your brain, called your amygdala,” she says. Once that happens, your brain can more effectively understand the issue and kick into problem-solving mode, as opposed to getting lost in the swirl of shame or overwhelm.
2. Acknowledge the potential upside of your regretful action
Just as you might look back and find reason to blame something you did or said for a negative outcome, that same choice or action could’ve just as well spared you from a worse outcome. Even beyond that, maybe you can identify something good that came from your supposedly regretful decision.
“Dive into your negative thoughts and check their accuracy,” says Dr. Fielding. “See if there’s an alternative way of looking at how the situation panned out.” For example, your choice to keep dating someone who wasn’t right for you may have saved you from a handful of bad first dates. Or, maybe your flop on a job interview spared you from a would-be toxic work culture.
Once you allow that imagination game to take hold, picture the positive potential, and acknowledge it. Then, be sure to return to the present moment because “regret really is a past time-traveling kind of activity,” says Dr. Fielding. And dwelling too much on the past won’t necessarily help your future. To bring yourself back, turn your attention to one or two things that are good in your life right now, whether they’re the result of careful planning on your part or sheer luck.
3. Practice self-compassion
Because of the personal shame and blame that tend to get wrapped up with the feeling of regret, it has a way of making you feel alone: How could I have done that? Or, why didn’t I do that? But that’s really not the case. “We are not unusual in our experience of making wrong choices,” says clinical psychologist Amy Silver, PsyD. “We are human. We are fallible. We make mistakes, and regretting them is a very common negative emotion.” Just acknowledging that can help you learn how to deal with regret by offering yourself a little more compassion and grace.
4. If your regret involves others, seek forgiveness
Perhaps you find it hard to forgive yourself for a regretful action because it had a negative impact on others whom you love or care about. If that’s the case, it might be helpful to apologize and ask for their forgiveness in order to find closure. “Seeking forgiveness and forgiving yourself go hand in hand,” psychologist and forgiveness researcher Robert Enright, PhD, previously told Well+Good. Even if the person doesn't accept your apology or you aren’t able to get in touch with them, you’re more likely to find peace knowing you attempted to do right by them and the situation.
5. Honor the loss of what was or could have been
Attempting to quickly let go of negative things isn’t always a part of positive mental health. 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. “It’s often helpful to give yourself a season of regretting it,” says Thomas. “I think it’s just like the grieving cycle. If there’s something that has happened that you’ve missed out on or you’ve wasted time doing something else, and you’re regretful, you have to allow yourself time to grieve what could have been.”
Depending on your situation, you could be in this stage for a while. Regretting a haircut is going to look a lot different from regretting the way a relationship ended. “There’s a common misconception that, ‘when you’re ready, you can just let go of it,’” says Dr. Fielding. “But you may not ever feel ready because chewing on old pain is a little bit like biting down on a toothache. It feels terrible, but it’s familiar.” Instead of waiting until you wake up without the pain, practice validating the negative feeling by acknowledging the loss until it begins to feel less potent.
6. Broaden your perspective
However huge the regret may feel, it’s still related to a moment in time and not a constant behavior. “It’s not that you always make wrong decisions, but rather, that you made a wrong decision,” says Dr. Silver. “Or, it’s not that you aren’t a brave person, but that at one point in time, you weren’t bold in your decision-making.” Creating that distinction helps separate the feeling of regret from your identity, making room for perspective and providing you with the agency to make a better or more aligned decision when you arrive at a similar crossroads in the future.
7. Connect with other people who can relate
Though you might come across people who say, “I have no regrets,” the experts agree regret is very common and would even wager to say everyone has experienced some version of it at one point or another. If you can find and connect with people who carry a similar kind of regret to yours, you’ll have an easier time normalizing it for yourself, says Dr. Silver. Sharing difficult feelings opens you up to support from others and helps break the unhelpful narrative that your perceived failure is unique to you.
8. Remember that regret, in and of itself, isn’t a bad emotion
As uncomfortable as it may feel, regret can serve as an excellent tool for better understanding yourself and your goals. “Regret helps us see clearly what we don’t want to do, and as long as we don’t let that become a deep burden to us, we can allow it to teach us things," says Thomas, who notes that the emotional process for learning how to deal with regret is really about stepping back to see the humanity of it. The natural tendency to feel regret over past actions that turned out poorly is what helps ensure that we course-correct and move forward with our best interests in mind.
9. Identify the lesson(s) you can learn from regret
Figuring out exactly why you feel as though you could’ve made a better choice or decision in the past can lead you to the real silver lining of regret: the lesson. “If you don’t like that you made a less courageous decision when you look back, perhaps you can use that information to help you the next time you have a choice to make that requires courage,” says Dr. Silver. “The idea is to figure out, ‘What have I learned about what is important to me?’ And perhaps this is the definition of being wise: You’re wiser because of the retrospective of your choices.”
10. Use regret as a motivator to take action
Because it’s often tougher to view inaction as a real mistake when you compare it to a clearly wrong action, you might be tempted to brush off a failure to act as “something that just didn’t happen,” says social psychologist Shai Davidai, PhD. But, in reality, that allows you to keep putting off whatever it is, and “eventually, the inertia of inaction leads to more inaction,” he says, and the tiny, “What if?” in the back of your mind becomes a more powerful sense of regret.
That’s all to say, any amount of regret over what you didn’t do should be a sign to actively do something that’ll contribute to a goal, dream, or aspiration, he says. After all, there’s no surer way to resolve regret over inaction than by taking action the next time a similar opportunity arises.
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