Regret plays an important role in shaping our lives. It can help us to understand what we value most, so we can find greater meaning and purpose, and make more confident decisions. However, regret is also incredibly powerful and, if left unchecked, can cause painful emotions such as sadness, guilt, and helplessness, which can prevent us from moving forward.
With life being full of choices, almost all of us have struggled with regret at one time or another; what we did or didn’t do or the paths we’ve taken or not taken.
Regret is an unavoidable part of being human. But, as with any strong emotion, it’s how we manage it that’s important.
With the right tools, it’s possible for regret to become something that doesn’t leave us stuck in the past – and instead, spurs us on to make better choices for ourselves in the future.
Here, we’ll take a closer look at why we feel regret, how it presents itself, and how we can use it to set us on a more positive path.
What is regret?
Regret is a complex and unpleasant emotion, which can leave us feeling sad, guilty, and disappointed about a past event in our lives or something that we did or didn’t do.
There are different types of regrets – and according to Daniel H Pink, author of The Power of Regret, they can be split into four types. These are…
- Foundation regrets – which happen when we feel that we haven’t been responsible or conscientious, or exercised good judgement. These regrets can also arise when we’ve exchanged long-term goals for short-term gains. For example, if only I’d done the work to get that promotion or if only I’d saved money.
- Boldness regrets – which focus on the chances we didn’t take, whether it was to launch a business, pursue true love, or travel the world.
- Moral regrets – which are a result of decisions where we took the low road and did something we’re not proud of, such as cheating on a spouse or deceiving a business partner.
- Connection regrets – which arise when we neglect the people who are most important to us and give our lives purpose and meaning.
Studies have revealed that feelings of regret are linked to increased activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex of the brain, which is the area that helps to guide goal-directed decision making. And it can last minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, years – or a lifetime.
Every time we make a choice in life, there’s the potential for regret. Regrets can range from brief, daily ones like, wishing you’d had a salad instead of a sandwich at lunchtime, to deeper, life-changing ones, such as ‘I wish I’d gone to law school’ or ‘I married the wrong person’.
Typically, the decisions we regret most are those we have most control over – and, in our modern world, with so many options available, avoiding regret can feel impossible. In fact, one study found that, over the course of a week, participants regretted around a third of decisions they made.
What do people regret most?
Research has suggested that the biggest regrets in life are those linked to missed opportunities for change, growth, and renewal. Specifically, the top six regrets are in the areas of education, career, romance, parenting, the self, and leisure – followed by finance, family, health, friends, spirituality, and community.
In The Top Five Regrets of the Dying, based on the experiences of palliative care nurse Bronnie Ware, a common regret – particularly among men – was ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’. It supports the popular saying that, at the end of life, people don’t usually wish they’d spent more time at the office. Bronnie noticed that, for many people, their regrets were linked to unfulfilled dreams and living a life expected by others, rather than being true to themselves.
People’s other regrets were wishing that they’d stayed in touch with friends, had the courage to express their feelings, or allowed themselves to be happier – rather than getting stuck in familiar habits and patterns through fear of change.
Another study backed up these findings, showing that the biggest and most lingering regrets were ‘ideal-related regrets’, such as failing to go after our goals and live up to our full potential.
When is regret unhealthy?
Feeling a certain amount of regret over past choices or mistakes is normal and can help guide the decisions we make in future. However, dwelling too much on what we could or should have done can make it difficult to enjoy life in the present – and, may even affect our health.
Regret typically becomes unhealthy when you’re trapped in a cycle of rumination and circular thinking. This cycle can be all-consuming and lead to self-blame, sadness, and general unrest.
Studies show that persistent regret can lead to muscle, chest, and joint pain; sleep disturbances; changes in appetite; headaches; and breathing issues. It can also disrupt the balance of our hormones and immune systems, and lead to anxiety, shame, depression, and low self-esteem.
7 ways to help you overcome regret and learn from it
Though regret is an inevitable part of life for most people, luckily, there are some things you can do to manage it and transform it into a positive force in your life.
1. Allow yourself to feel your regret
As with other strong emotions, it’s generally best not to avoid, deny, or try to suppress regret.
Instead, try to let yourself feel it, along with any other emotions that come with it, such as guilt, helplessness, sadness, and remorse.
Although it can be difficult, accepting ourselves and what we’re feeling without judgement, can bring some relief. We can also remind ourselves that we’re only human, and are doing the best that we can.
Try to practise being compassionate towards yourself as you would be to a loved one or a close friend in the same situation. We’re not defined by our mistakes or failures – they’re part of how we learn, change, and grow.
Plus, by reflecting on our behaviours as objectively as possible, we may be better equipped to deal with similar situations in the future.
2. Try to look forward
There are two ways to experience regret. We can either regret something we did, or something we didn’t do. And research shows that regrets related to inaction – the things we didn’t do or the opportunities lost – are trickier to fix. This includes the regret that comes from not realising a dream.
This type of regret is more likely to lead to depression, anxiety, a sense of ‘stuckness’, and a feeling of longing over what could have been, or ways our life might have turned out differently.
It can help to consider what type of regret yours is so you can work out what it may be trying to signal to you, and how to use that information to move forward. For example, the emotional pang of regret over an unfulfilled dream may be a sign that we ought to make a change – one where we align our lives more closely with our values.
In cases like these, we may still be able to strive towards our original goal by drawing on courage and self-belief, and breaking it down into smaller, more manageable steps. Though, if for some reason this isn’t possible, then – rather than dwelling on missed opportunities – it may be best to let go and, instead, pursue alternative goals in line with the same values. Doing so can shift our focus away from what could have been, towards new, positive goals that are still within our grasp.
If, however, your regrets aren’t linked to inaction, but to something you did that you aren’t proud of, then this is likely to be the work of your moral compass. We’ll cover this in more detail in the next section.
3. Make amends
Regrets that come from not living up to our responsibilities, such as cheating on a spouse or blurting out a secret, can stir up intense emotions. And, while this can be incredibly uncomfortable – or even painful – it’s often a sign that we need to put in some work to make amends and prevent the same thing from happening again in future.
In some situations, making amends by offering empathy and an apology to those who have been affected by our actions may be helpful in closing the door on a difficult chapter of our lives.
If you find it difficult to put things into words and/or you’re worried about saying the wrong thing, you could consider writing a letter, so that you’ve got plenty of time to think about what you want to say.
There’s always the possibility that some people may not forgive you, but it’s still worth asking for forgiveness. Knowing that you’ve done what you can may help you to start moving forward.
It can also be helpful to take some time to reflect on why you made the mistakes you did – as this is often the key to making sure it doesn’t happen again in future. For example, if you said some unkind things to a friend when you were having a bad day, then how can you go about better managing your emotions, and communicating to others when you may need space?
4. Reframe your regret
While regret is often seen as a negative emotion, if we know how to use it, it can play a role in personal growth.
The process of working through regret can promote the development of certain skills, such as resilience, empathy, and gratitude. This is because regret encourages us to find silver linings, bounce back from adversity, appreciate when things go well, and understand that we can’t control everything.
As already mentioned, we can also use regret to help us make better choices next time.
Past choices are based on the person you were in the past, and you might not have had the knowledge, experience, or maturity to make a different decision. So, instead of dwelling on things that might have been, it can be useful to see regret as something that’s allowed you to learn and grow.
A great technique for changing the way you see regret is something called cognitive reframing – which can be applied to any situation, person, or relationship, to help you take a different perspective.
For example, when thinking about your regret, you could try writing down the natural reactions (or automatic thoughts) you have about it, and finding evidence to both support and contradict them.
Doing so can encourage you to look at both sides of the situation, and come up with a more fair, balanced view. This can not only ease your regret but also make it easier to decide how to use it to your advantage.
You could ask yourself, given what I regret, what can I do, both now and in future, that’s consistent with who I want to be?
5. Look for the silver linings
Sometimes we idealise what could have been and overestimate the benefits of the paths we didn’t choose to walk down. But we can’t ever know how they would have turned out.
With this in mind, try to look for the silver linings in your current situation, and consider whether there’s anything that’s better in your life now, because you made the choice you regret. It may help you feel some gratitude for where you are today.
Regret often loses its power over time. So, it can also help to think about how your regret will feel in a month, a year, and five years from now. Is it likely you’ll still be thinking about this by then? If not, try to see your regret as a wave that you just have to ride out.
And remember, other people judge us less harshly than we judge ourselves, even when we make mistakes.
6. Share your regret
It can feel easier to keep regret to ourselves – especially if it comes with feelings such as guilt, humiliation and shame – because we may be worried about burdening others, or about them judging us (and even reinforcing our regret).
But, opening up and sharing our emotions with others can lessen its impact and help to put things into perspective, while strengthening our relationships in the process.
Though, if you don’t feel comfortable sharing your regrets with someone else, you could consider writing them down – as this too, can provide clarity in situations and allow us to see things more objectively.
Research has shown that writing continuously for 10-20 minutes for three days, expressing as much detail as you can about how you feel, offers a huge range of emotional benefits.
7. Learn to forgive yourself
When feeling regretful, we may blame ourselves for the way things turned out, and worry that there was something we could have said or done to produce a more positive outcome.
If this sounds familiar, then one of the best ways to ease emotions linked to self-blame is to forgive yourself by accepting any mistakes you might’ve made and deciding to no longer punish yourself.
Forgiving ourselves is often made easier if we can take responsibility for the situation that’s caused us to feel regretful, show remorse, and make amends. It’s also important to remember that no matter how much we want to, we can’t change what’s already behind us – but we can use it to guide our future.
Nearly all of us will experience regret at one time or another – it’s an unavoidable part of life. But, it can help to know how to manage regret so we can learn and grow from it and use it to our advantage.
As we’ve seen here, some of the main ways we can do this is to accept our feelings, forgive ourselves, take action to correct past mistakes, and always look for silver linings. Then perhaps instead of wishing our life had been different, we can learn to focus on enjoying the here and now and start looking forward to the future.
When we understand what we regret most, we learn what we value most. And this important information can be used to guide, motivate, and inspire us to make better choices for ourselves in the future.