That perm in middle school. Cheating on your significant other. Eating that extra slice (or two) of pizza. Making a risky financial investment.
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We all have regrets — some more serious than others. But that nagging feeling that you made the wrong choice or acted in a poor manner can hold you back and affect how you behave in the future.
And while many of us can use regret to learn from our mistakes, some of us may have a tough time knowing how to move forward. So, what can we do?
Psychologist Dawn Potter, PsyD, explains how to deal with regret.
You may think that regret is something you feel. But Dr. Potter says it’s more of a thought.
“Regret involves an assessment of a situation with the conclusion that one should have done something differently, made a different choice, taken or not taken a certain action,” explains Dr. Potter. “It’s a thought that’s tied to a strong emotion like sadness or guilt. But sometimes, it can include anger, anxiety or disgust as well.”
With regret, you tend to focus on the past in a negative way while engaging in self-blame.
And while everybody experiences regret at some point in their lives, the degree of the regret can vary.
“You can probably relate to the experience of wishing you’d gone to bed earlier last night or wishing you’d taken that opportunity to go see that movie,” poses Dr. Potter. “But for some people, regrets are something that hangs around, keeps them up at night and holds them back from things.”
And for those who hold on to regrets, it can affect their mental health and their day-to-day lives.
“You may spend a lot of time going over certain events in your head or having conversations about how the outcome might have been different if I would have done this or that,” says Dr. Potter. “Your emotions may vary, but you might feel sad or withdrawn.”
There are countless situations that can cause you to feel regretful. It can simply be from a mistake you made. Or from a tendency to want to feel like you’re in control of a situation.
“When something bad happens, it’s harder for a person to acknowledge that something horrible happened for no reason. It’s easier to blame somebody. And because we want to feel like we control our environment, we look back and blame ourselves,” says Dr. Potter. “That helps us make sense of the situation, but that may create other kinds of pain that are more difficult than just accepting that a bad thing happened.”
And sometimes, regrets can be based on cognitive biases, which is when we may interpret information based off our own beliefs and differences, and sometimes, the way that we interpret that information may or may not be accurate.
“Sometimes, you may make a decision with the knowledge and the skills that you had at the time,” says Dr. Potter. “But when you look back at that period of your life, you think about how you could have acted better, but you didn’t know any different in that moment.”
Learning from our mistakes — that’s one of the upsides of regret. But regret can also lead to depression and anxiety. You may even experience symptoms like headaches, changes in your appetite or sleep issues.
“You may feel bad about yourself — feeling like things are pointless because you screwed up,” says Dr. Potter. “You may do an assessment of your life and think you’re not a worthwhile person.”
To turn those thoughts of hopelessness around, it’s important to have self-compassion and find a way to learn from whatever situation you regret.
So, how can you overcome a regret? Dr. Potter offers the following tips to help you take accountability and move on:
“Most of the time, when we do something wrong, we didn’t do it on purpose,” she notes. “And that’s where self-acceptance comes in.”
Dr. Potter says to get started with self-acceptance, you need to objectively look at the thing or situation you regret and consider how you could have handled it better or differently. The idea is to forgive yourself and move away from thinking that you’re a bad person.
“Staying stuck in shame and guilt doesn’t help us be there for the people in our lives and doesn’t help us move forward and be productive in our societies,” she states.
And if you’re having trouble forgiving yourself, she suggests writing a letter to yourself as if you’re talking to somebody else.
“Picture if somebody else you care about had done the same thing that you regret, how would you talk to them about it? How would you forgive them?”
Thinking about how you’d behave or act differently if the situation were to happen again can help you actually take a different course of action in the future.
“You need to learn from your mistake,” says Dr. Potter. “And if you can identify a way to take action or give back, that can help you move forward.”
For example, if you got angry at a loved one, deciding to take anger management classes can be a positive step in the right direction.
And even the act of giving back can help you forgive yourself — think about how donating your time or money to a specific cause can put a positive spin on the situation.
“While you can’t go back and change the past, doing something else on purpose as a way to give back can be really helpful,” she encourages. “Doing something meaningful can help you put whatever you regret in the past.”
Cognitive reframing is a strategy used by healthcare professionals who practice cognitive behavioral therapy.
“Cognitive reframing is a process of asking yourself: What am I thinking right now? What am I feeling?” Dr. Potter explains. “We need to separate those two processes out from each other and consider what evidence you have that your thoughts are true. Is there evidence of your thoughts being false?”
The goal is to consider a different way of looking at the situation.
“We typically use an ‘all or nothing’ thinking — either it’s right or wrong,” she continues. “But there are a lot of situations when it’s a little more complicated than that. With cognitive reframing, the idea is to identify different cognitive biases that get in our way of understanding a situation accurately.”
Sounds like a no-brainer, right? But the act of apologizing doesn’t come easy to all of us.
One of the most important lessons you can learn when it comes to apologizing is to take responsibility and not make excuses.
“‘I’m sorry, but…’ is not an apology,” says Dr. Potter. “Just own what you did, why you regret it and if it’s relevant, what you’re going to do differently in the future.”
For example, you can say something like “I’m sorry I was late to your birthday party. I know your birthday is important to you and next time, I’ll leave the house half an hour earlier.”
You also need to consider if the person you want to apologize to is ready to hear from you. And if they’re not, you need to respect them and their space.
“If somebody doesn’t want to talk to you, you can write them a letter and not send it,” suggests Dr. Potter. “That can be a good way to get closure.”
If you’re becoming consumed with regret to the point where it’s affecting your daily life, Dr. Potter says it may be time to talk to a mental health specialist.
“Any time that regrets are keeping you up at night, if you’re having nightmares or if you’re feeling down, depressed or hopeless more days than not, it’s time to ask for help,” she says. “Cognitive behavioral therapy can help someone learn how to deal with their regrets, but there are a lot of different types of therapy that can help depending on the person and their situation.”