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How to deal with regret | Psyche

Sicily, 1933. Photo by Herbert List/Magnum

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Guide

How to deal with regret

In a world of choices, it’s impossible to avoid regret. Unpleasant as it is, you can make it bearable, even inspirational

Sicily, 1933. Photo by Herbert List/Magnum

Need to know

If only I’d had the courage to say I loved him before he married someone else.
I should have gone to law school like I had planned to. What possibilities might have opened up for me?
I could’ve avoided a painful surgery if I had only been a little more careful.

As a practising psychologist, I hear about instances of regret such as these all the time. Regret is a very common negative emotional experience, driven by thoughts of what might have happened if one had behaved differently in the past. Who among us has not bemoaned what could have been? One study of regret found that over the course of about a week, participants reported experiencing regret about nearly a third of decisions they recalled making during that time.

A typical feature of regret is self-blame over making the ‘wrong’ choice, whether it was doing something that you now believe you shouldn’t have done, or not doing something that you now think you should have. Some regrets are mild and fleeting and, as such, do not cause much heartache. But it’s possible to be haunted by regret – consumed by self-reproach, sadness, and a sense of loss over what you could have had. If you have been grappling with this stronger form of regret, this Guide will offer you strategies for coping with it, and for transforming it into a positive force in your life.

Regret is hard to avoid

Modern times provide fertile ground for regret. The explosion of choice, which has been particularly pronounced in the West, colours every decision, including the selection of consumer goods, places to live, when and whom to marry, what profession to pursue, and how we identify ourselves. As the psychologist Barry Schwartz has explained, an initial increase of choice often leads to greater satisfaction, but the effect can reverse as the number of options expands. People who try to fail-safe their choices by thoroughly considering all the alternatives before making a decision may, paradoxically, experience more regret afterwards.

When I was growing up in the former Yugoslavia, we had only a small number of universities from which to choose. Students generally stayed close to home, and we didn’t spend much time considering whether we had made the best decision. But when I talk to students in the United States, I hear how hard it is to shake off doubts about whether they made the right choice from among almost 4,000 colleges and universities. Regret and dissatisfaction can fester when choice exponentially increases.

Furthermore, new technologies have helped to erase the boundaries between private and public, increased the speed of almost everything, and caused an information overload in recent decades. All of these processes are bound to lead to more regret, which we witness whenever someone apologises over a Tweet or frets about a job application email that goes out with a typo.

At the same time, there is evidence that perfectionism has been increasing for a while in some parts of the world. Research indicates that, since the late 1980s in the US, Canada and the United Kingdom, people have become less forgiving of their own and others’ mistakes, while also increasingly believing that others will judge them harshly for their lack of perfection. Regret is likely to balloon in such an environment.

Regret can be painful – but it can also present an opportunity

Interpersonal regrets, such as those involving romantic relationships and family, are especially common forms. And, while you will likely feel bad very quickly after doing something you regret, such as blurting out a secret, regrets about the things you didn’t do – including the chances you haven’t taken – may be the ones that linger the longest. These inactions are often regretted more intensely as people grow older and new opportunities dwindle.

People who are experiencing depression tend to see things through a negative lens, so it is no surprise that they seem to feel more regret than others. Regret has also been linked to anxiety, self-criticism, shame, and sleep problems. It often involves rumination and obsessive thinking. If you are spinning in circles, going over what you did wrong again and again, and not sharing it with anyone, you’re likely to get mired in the pernicious quicksand of regret.

When harnessed skilfully, however, regret can increase the likelihood of psychological growth. Regret can prompt you to reflect on your behaviour, to learn which sorts of behaviour work well and which don’t, and thus to improve yourself in the long run. The emotional pang of regret can help you to understand that you ought to make a change – and then push you to follow through.

One patient of mine came to regret moving away from his family each time he got a better job opportunity. His professional success reinforced his choices for years and he justified his path by how well he had done, which allowed him to handsomely support his kids and his parents. But, starting with the day his mother had a stroke, he was overcome with guilt and self-reproach: ‘Neither I nor my children can ever get those years back, time that we could have spent together.’ Taking his profound regret as a sign of how much he cared about his family, and working through it skilfully, he was able to make a change and align his life with what he valued. The advice that follows can help you move in a similar direction.

What to do

Let yourself feel regret, without avoiding or wallowing in it

When one avoids, denies or minimises negative emotional experiences, they tend to come back with a vengeance. So, the first task is to counter the very human tendency to run away from the experience of regret.

Consider all the ways you might be using technology, entertainment, food, drink, drugs or other diversions to distract from the pain or discomfort of regret. Then, if a moment comes when you catch yourself turning to any of these as an escape from your feelings, do something different: pause, and open up to all the physical sensations in your body and everything that is going on in your mind.

Try to observe yourself without judgment. Silently describe to yourself how regret feels for you in the moment. Emotions and thoughts associated with regret can serve as important sources of information about what you want to stand for in this world and how a specific behaviour might have violated that. The only way you can learn from regret is to fully experience it first.

A patient of mine in her 50s repeatedly suppressed regret about not having pursued medical school when she was younger. (Some details of her story, and of other patient stories in this Guide, have been altered to preserve anonymity.) Whenever she noticed the regretful thoughts bubbling up, she would occupy herself with chores or laser-focus on her children’s activities. She was afraid to look at her life with brutal honesty. The avoidance made regret show up with a higher frequency, until she felt completely drained and defeated, and sought help.

One of the first things we did was have her relate to her waves of regret in a different way – observing with curiosity what was happening in her mind and body, and describing it as if she were describing something outside herself. ‘I felt my chest tighten and nausea rising to my throat as I remembered the day I dropped organic chemistry,’ she recounted in a session. She described feeling a hollow mixture of guilt, self-disgust and shame. Gradually allowing herself to experience the raw emotions of regret gave her the motivation to re-evaluate her life.

In trying to accept the feelings of regret, however, it’s important not to get derailed by circular overthinking. You might be inclined to ruminate and obsess, thinking thoughts such as: Why did I do that? How stupid/short-sighted/selfish that was of me; If only I could go back in time and make it right; I can’t believe I failed to try that. Although it’s easy to confuse it with problem-solving, this kind of recurrent thinking is counterproductive. It doesn’t help you acknowledge the reality of the situation and act to improve it, nor is it likely to make you feel better in the long term.

If you find yourself spinning in circles in this way, try to get out of your head and notice how your feelings are showing up in your body. Some powerful techniques from dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) could be helpful here:

  • Exposing yourself to strong sensations such as sour lemon, frigid water, or loud music
  • Engaging in a short bout of intense exercise
  • Helping someone – for example, guiding your niece as she sheds bike training wheels, or assisting your parent in fixing a broken shelf

After you free yourself from the rumination vortex, it can be helpful to review the regretted behaviour in a more deliberate way, by visualising and verbalising the specific steps in which it unfolded.

The patient of mine whose mother had a stroke had been obsessing about all the ways he might have prevented it had he lived nearby. A barrage of ‘what ifs’ poisoned his days and kept him up at night. If he had been more involved in his ageing parents’ lives, he thought, he could have persuaded them to eat better and exercise, which would have lowered their cardiovascular risk. Or perhaps he could have found them better doctors. And on and on. Our work focused on my patient vividly recalling ​​specific times when his mother would ask him over the phone when he was coming to visit or if he would ever move back. As he related to me his answer – ‘We’ll see, I’m very busy nowadays’ – he broke down in loud sobs. Crucially, he had shifted from the obsessive spinning in the realm of abstract ‘what ifs’ to the actual, painful experience of regret.

If your behaviour caused harm, try to make amends

In many instances of regret, it becomes clear that one has acted in a way that hurt someone else. Approaching rather than avoiding regret can enable you to recognise any harm you might have caused, and to make amends if possible.

If you determine that the behaviour you now regret did cause harm, think about specific actions you can take to make things right. Then, apologise to the co-worker you offended; take steps to repair the friendship that has suffered because of your neglect; express your remorse to the partner you alienated with your angry outburst. It is important to recognise that some people will not forgive you, and that it is still worth asking for forgiveness – because you can control only your actions. You will likely be able to sleep better at night knowing that you did your part.

If you are having a hard time making repairs, you can try the ‘mental contrasting’ technique, originally developed by the psychologist Gabriele Oettingen. Vividly imagine how things might have turned out if you had behaved differently. For example: If I had proposed to my partner when she gave me a clear indication that she could not wait forever to get married and have kids, she might still be in my life. Visualise how the alternative scenario would look. Then think about what stands in the way of carrying out the wished-for scenario now – in this example, that might be having to go back to the former partner, take responsibility and apologise for making a mistake, explain how you feel, and ask if your partner would take you back. If these obstacles seem surmountable, strategise about how to tackle them. And, if you come to the conclusion that they are not, you can disengage from that goal and accept that you are now on a different path.

Learn to forgive yourself

For many of us, the go-to response to having done something that we later regret is to beat ourselves up. The self-criticism is often harsh and relentless. This way of treating yourself will, of course, not make you feel more positive emotions or less regret. But what I often hear from my patients is some version of: ‘Yes, this is harsh, but I deserve it. It’s the only way I’ll learn from my mistakes and do better in the future.’ This is an incorrect, if common, assumption. A self-compassionate stance is more likely to make you feel better and encourage self-improvement.

So, how do you become more self-forgiving? Intentionally and gradually. Here are some techniques that can help you along.

Name the self-critic. Pay attention to when you slip into self-reproach and how it sounds when you do. Giving your inner critical voice a name, maybe accompanied with an image, can help you to realise that you are going down that unproductive path, and catch yourself before you are in too deep. For example, you might think: Oh, here is ____ again, judging me and belittling me. Is she actually helping me to become a better person right now?

Channel a caring person from your childhood. If you are someone who likes and is good at visualisation, you should try imagining an empathic, accepting person from your childhood. Maybe it was a grandma who always had your back and showed unconditional love even after your transgressions. Perhaps she would say: ‘What you did was wrong, and here are the consequences of your actions. And I still love you as much as I did yesterday or any other day!’ Try to channel this person when you are feeling regret and to treat yourself as they would treat you. For example, if you are beating yourself up about a mistake at work, you might embrace yourself and engage in self-soothing talk, reminiscent of how your caring relative would speak to you.

Let go of all-or-nothing thinking. You might find that thinking traps are standing in the way of self-acceptance and self-forgiveness. For example, say you conclude that failing to visit your aunt before she died means that you are a bad family member and, by extension, a bad person, and that you will always be this way. If you are prone to generalising in this way from a specific, regretted behaviour to your sense of yourself as a person, ask yourself the following questions. Have you always been ‘bad’ in the way your regret is suggesting you are (eg, a bad nephew)? Does your regretted behaviour erase all of your previous behaviours (eg, years of kindness and compassion toward your aunt)? Can you learn and grow from this experience (eg, by becoming more mindful of mortality and the unpredictability of illnesses)? The answers to these questions will help you step back a little and put things into perspective: you are much, much more than any given action – and you are constantly changing.

Put your actions in context. Keep in mind that many internal and external factors likely affected your decision to act in a later-regretted way. It is easy to fall prey to focalism – a term used to describe the human tendency to focus only on one cause at the exclusion of all others. Even if you made a mistake that is worth owning up to, what happened might not have been completely your fault. Or you might have been depressed, ill, or under a lot of stress. Many of my discussions with patients during the COVID-19 pandemic centred on the imperfect decisions they made while afraid, anxious, grieving or angry.

Reframe your experience of regret

Once you have started to accept your feelings of regret, made amends (if pertinent), and soothed yourself, you are ready to explore some helpful reframing of the position in which you find yourself now. Here are some strategies to assist you in doing that.

  • Ask yourself: Given what I’ve done and regretted, what can I still do that is consistent with who I want to be as a person? Jot down as many positive answers as you can think of. Then make a plan to enact at least some of them. For one patient of mine, who felt regret about the ways she thought she might have failed her deceased mother, honouring her mother’s memory by regularly visiting the cemetery and writing a biography of her mother’s life helped to focus her mind in a meaningful way.
  • Make sure you are not overestimating the benefits of not-chosen paths. Sometimes we idealise what could have been, and imagine that everything would have worked out for the best if we had just made one different choice. But you cannot really know how an alternative decision would have affected subsequent happenings – some of which you might not have liked. For example, if you had accepted an enticing job away from your family, your career might have flourished more quickly, but you likely would have missed out on family closeness.
  • Attempt to find silver linings in your current situation. Is there anything that is better because you made the choice you now regret? You might be tempted to dismiss this question as saccharine. But when I work with my patients on regrets, staying with a curious and open-minded enquiry usually allows them to recognise positives related to their decision, however small. And sometimes they even develop a deep gratitude for where they are now.
  • Put what you are regretting into perspective. Regret often loses its power over time. How big a deal is the source of your regret going to be a month from now? A year? Five years? Another way to get a bit of distance from regret that is paralysing you is to imagine looking down at your fretting self from an ascending aeroplane. You can notice how you and your regrets become smaller and smaller as the view expands to include more of the world around you. The idea is to appreciate the cosmic insignificance of our troubles.
  • Recognise that others are more concerned about their own problems than yours. In fact, research suggests that other people often judge us less harshly than we judge ourselves, even when we make mistakes. I had a patient who was racked with regret over selling his business at an inopportune time, frequently focusing on how his move was ‘ridiculed’ in his professional circles. When he finally sat down for lunch with one of his former colleagues, he was shocked to discover that the others barely remembered what had happened.

Write about and share your regret

When we feel regret, the natural tendency is to hide, physically or psychologically. Unlike negative emotions that stem from bad luck or untoward actions by other people (which we love to share), emotions such as guilt, humiliation or shame – all of which commonly coincide with regret – are often kept secret. But opening up and sharing your regret can lessen its impact and, as a bonus, may bring you closer to other people.

How can you find the courage to be vulnerable and express your regret? You can first try writing about it, just for yourself. Start by writing continuously for 10-20 minutes and try to do this once a day over three days, expressing as much as possible about how you feel. Writing for 20 minutes for at least three consecutive days about something upsetting has been found to offer a slew of emotional benefits.

Then you might consider sharing a part of your writing with a partner, friend or relative whom you know to be accepting, nonjudgmental and supportive. Next you could experiment with talking about your regret with them. Research shows that putting feelings into words can help people to make sense of their emotions and feel better. Opening up about your regret can also provide an opportunity to be soothed by a compassionate loved one. You might be surprised to find that your sharing is well-received and even leads to reciprocal disclosures. Feeling better, and potentially even experiencing a strengthening of your relationship, will give you confidence and help you resolve to talk more often and more in depth about your regrets.

One caveat is that you should avoid falling prey to ‘co-rumination’, which research indicates is associated with depression and anxiety. Co-rumination is when you have a conversation with another person that focuses exclusively on the negatives, which can include dwelling on why you did what you did and how bad the consequences are or could be. I often invite my patients to pay attention to the effects of this kind of discussion: ‘How did you feel after your conversation with X?’ If you find yourself slipping into an unhealthy conversational dynamic with someone, pause and use the other strategies in this article before you return to talking about your regret.

Use regret to clarify what you value

Notice what you tend to regret the most. The content of your regrets can elucidate what matters most to you and who you want to be as a person, or more specifically as a friend, romantic partner, parent, child, professional, and so on. Maybe you admonish yourself for treating your employee too harshly, or feel guilt over not spending enough quality time with your children. So, what is important to you is to be a compassionate and supportive boss, or a hands-on and available parent. Or, perhaps you regret not going to medical school when you were younger, or failing to travel the world when you had a chance. You might thus value helping people, learning and pushing yourself to achieve new things, or adventure and cultural diversity.

I find that, in a Western culture obsessed with goals, first clarifying what you value is invaluable because it gives you a direction for orienting your life. Once you have a sense of a path or paths suggested by your values, it is not hard to pick short-term and long-term goals that serve as signposts along those paths. And then you can commit to engaging in behaviours that help you accomplish those goals.

Some of the goals that align with what you value could involve directly rectifying what you regret – for example, going to medical school in your mid-30s, or rearranging your work schedule to see your kids more. Even when it seems that it is too late to do something you should have done earlier in life, it might not be. (For inspiration, I share the series ‘It’s Never Too Late’, in The New York Times, with my patients.)

But sometimes the metaphorical ship has sailed, and you cannot, for instance, travel around the planet because of age-related illness. In those situations, it may be best to disengage from the specific goals whose fulfilment is impossible, and instead pursue alternative goals in the service of the same values. For example, for the person who needs to bid adieu to traversing the globe: watching travel and nature documentaries, reading travelogues, and exploring your own town as if you were a tourist could offer meaningful replacements. Finding ways to act in accordance with what’s important to you, whatever your current circumstances, can help you to both diminish the burden of regret and harness its power.

Key points – How to deal with regret

  1. Regret is hard to avoid. It’s a common negative emotional experience – perhaps more so now than ever, given how fast-paced life can be and how many options people have to choose from.
  2. Regret can be painful – but it can also present an opportunity. While endlessly repeating ‘what ifs’ is unhelpful, deliberate reflection on regret can help inform your future behaviour.
  3. Let yourself feel regret, without avoiding or wallowing in it. When regret surfaces, observe how you feel in the moment, without judgment, and allow yourself to fully experience it.
  4. If your behaviour caused harm, try to make amends. Taking steps to apologise and make up for any negative impacts on others is worthwhile, whether you receive forgiveness or not.
  5. Learn to forgive yourself. Take a step away from your harsh inner critic and remember that one regretted act or choice needn’t define who you are.
  6. Reframe your experience of regret. Consider ways you might be exaggerating the goodness of the path not taken or the inferiority of the path you’re on.
  7. Write about and share your regret. You can start by describing the experience of regret for yourself, and then discuss it with someone you trust.
  8. Use regret to clarify what you value. The focus of your regret can tell you what matters most to you – and suggest ways to live in accordance with it in the future.

Learn more

I hope it is clear by now that the French singer Édith Piaf’s proclamation ‘Je ne regrette rien’ and Frank Sinatra’s ‘Regrets, I’ve had a few / But then again, too few to mention’ are completely unrealistic. Being human means that we will regret many things in life. Our fallibility, coupled with the capacity for regret and rebirth, are the essence of our humanity. That said, there are ways to reduce future regret by choosing wisely and acting bravely.

Commit to acting consistently with your values whenever possible. Get in the habit of asking yourself: Is what I am about to do aligned with what I want my life to be about? Does it bring me closer to having a sense of meaning and purpose in life? Make choices that are consistent with what you want to stand for during your short time on Earth, what you want to be remembered for. Evoke ‘anticipatory regret’ by imagining whether you will later regret doing something that you are considering – or whether you will regret not doing something. There is evidence that this can lead to making healthier choices and persisting with goals.

Use technology mindfully and intentionally. Ask yourself a brief ‘Why?’ when you are about to open a social media app, check email, or send a text. My patients often start a session by recounting how, for example, going down the Facebook rabbit hole led to regrettable stalking of an old flame, or how posting a rant on Twitter now haunts them. And an ill-advised text message has damaged many a relationship. At the very least, most of us have regretted time spent on screens that could have been used more productively or pleasantly. So, don’t just mindlessly and habitually reach for a phone or other device when you are bored, tired, unsettled, sad or overwhelmed. Bringing more conscious awareness to the use of technology is bound to help you reduce future regret.

Seize the day. In the 17th century, René Descartes observed that those who act in a more decisive and resolute manner tend to experience less regret later on. At the end of the day, you will likely regret more what you did not at least try than what you did try that didn’t work out. So, do not feel that you must always wait for the ‘right’ moment, for the most opportune circumstances, or for inspiration. Inspiration often emerges from engaging in a pursuit. What is a small step you can take now that will bring you closer to the person you want to be?

I often ask my patients to imagine their 80th birthday, or being on their deathbed, and to ask themselves how they would want to have lived up to that point. Meditating on our finitude (Stoics called this ‘memento mori’) can light a fire under us, giving us the courage to act now – and to be true to ourselves.

Links & books

For an existential approach to regret with a large dose of irreverence, the author Mark Manson, of the The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck (2016) fame, has a blog entry on ‘How to Let Go of Your Regrets’.

In the episode ‘Regrets, I Have a Few…’ for his radio series Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam interviews Amy Summerville, one of the major contemporary regret researchers, who provides a fascinating view into academic work in this area. Summerville discusses how we can get stuck in ruminative, unproductive regret, and what the alternatives are.

The psychologist Barry Schwartz’s TED Talk ‘The Paradox of Choice’ clarifies why people struggle more with regret as a result of ever-expanding choice, and gives tips for choosing better.

In Bronnie Ware’s BBC interview about her book The Top Five Regrets of the Dying (2011; 2nd ed, 2019), she describes what her work with people close to death showed her about common regrets – such as being driven by ego, fear, or others’ views instead of doing what was meaningful or purposeful.

The bestselling author Daniel H Pink’s recent book The Power of Regret (2022) includes many quotes and tabulated results based on his web survey of people’s regrets. It also offers practical strategies for turning regret into a positive force.

The journalist Oliver Burkeman’s wise and engaging book Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals (2021) reminds us that we have a limited amount of time on this planet, so we’d better pick out what matters and get cracking. And that’s the best way to avoid regret.

One of the most comprehensive books on regret, If Only: How to Turn Regret Into Opportunity (2005) by Neal Roese, summarises most of the research on regret up to the year it was published, and presents it in a digestible format.

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2 November 2022

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