The biggest problem with regret is that it keeps your attention on the past where you re-play your favourite beat-yourself-up stories, or you play out different scenarios of how your life would have turned out better if only you hadn’t insulted your boss, or chose what was behind door 2 instead of door 3. Most of us do a bit of both.
Either way, you’re not spending attention and energy on anything positive in your life.
There’s nothing wrong with you
Regret’s nature is not just to focus you on your past, but to keep you stuck thinking about it with guilt or as a victim. It’s hard to not feel guilty about bad things that happened to you if your parents, teachers, and siblings told you that you’re ugly, bad, stupid and will never amount to anything. Religious narratives about unworthiness and being a sinner don’t help because they make us believe bad outcomes are due to some inherent badness or wrongness about us.
when regret is useful
Regret is useful if you use it as an opportunity to learn, and renew or release a relationship, but then you must move on. Regret is not useful when it becomes an habitual state.
So how do you stop yourself regretting the mistakes, disappointments and tragedies in life? Try this:
When you find yourself mired in the morass of remorse ask yourself these questions:
What can I learn from my action?
There’s always something to learn from failure, disappointment and falling short. Look for the lesson and remember it every time you find yourself in that regretful mood. Once you get how it has made you stronger, wiser, more compassionate you can easily stop regretting it and look at the incident as a teacher.
What is there to acknowledge?
Like the famous 12 step AA program, change begins with acknowledging something that needs to change. There might be something you need to acknowledge about yourself, someone or something else. Years ago I had a very disappointing setback in my career, and I regretted it for some years after until one day I acknowledged that—at the time—I simply was not ready to take the step I wanted. That acknowledgment allowed me to accept what happened and stop regretting it.
For the victim of a terrible car accident the acknowledgment might be that nothing can change the past. This simple acknowledgement can free you enough to ask the next question.
Is there another way to tell this story?
We often find ourselves regretting something because we are replaying the story of what happened, in the same way, over and over again. Same script, same background music, same villains, same meanings, same outcomes. We often tend to think our story is the only one and there’s only one way to tell it. That’s like saying there is only one way to sing a song. One useful tip is to change the ending point of the story as in the fable of the wise man saying “Good luck, bad luck. Who knows?” Something good may have become possible by whatever bad thing you regret; if not for you, perhaps for others.
While it’s not possible to change the past, you can change the story you tell yourself about it.
Who do I need to forgive?
You might find you need to forgive someone because your story of regret has you as the victim. Indeed your regret maybe the side dish of a blame story: a particularly nasty diet that nurtures thoughts of revenge and getting even. The funny thing about holding grudges is that it slowly poisons you and not the perpetrator.
If what you’re feeling is remorse you may need to ask someone’s forgiveness, and if that’s not possible—maybe they passed on—you can write them a letter explaining why things went down the way they did and how sorry you are. Offer something for atonement. Most of all you must forgive yourself.
What about this Can I be grateful for?
A daily gratitude practice is a great regret repellent, but if you still find yourself in a mood of regret, look for something in your regret story that you can be grateful for.
What positive future am I living into?
This question gets at the real reason most of us get stuck in regret: we’re not living for something bigger. Remember the true cost of regret is an opportunity cost—your time spent regretting is time lost to building your future, or at least enjoying your present.
Not having a big goal that we can almost taste means we have a lot of brain power that wants to focus on something, and if we’re not careful that something will be something negative from our past. Asking yourself a question like
“What’s really important to me?,” “What do I want to do with the next five to ten years of my life? or
“What do I want to leave behind?”,can jujitsu your mind and emotional energy into something useful: a created future that lights you up. You literally won’t have time for regret when your attention does an about-face from your past to your future.
The reason you’re stuck in moods of regret, remorse or even despair is because there is nothing pulling you into a bright future. Stop nurturing old regret stories about your past and start feeding new inspiring ones about your exciting future.
If these questions don’t help free you from regret then you might need some professional help. Take a seminar from someone like Tony Robbins, read some self-help books … hire a coach. A good coach or therapist can help you distinguish what has you stuck and get you unstuck. Just find some way to turn around and look at your future—not your past.
Regret is a choice
Perhaps the most valuable thing to learn about regret is that it’s a choice. There is no law of nature requiring regret. You are in a regretful mood simply because you have a bad habit—like biting your nails—of giving attention, to regretful thoughts.
You’re allowed a few moments of regret, but then deal with it using the questions above.