How to deal with regret

Burdened by intense feelings of regret? Angela Tufvesson seeks expert guidance on letting go of what might have been.

Regret. It's that nagging, uncomfortable, haunting feeling that lurks at the back of your mind. I wish I hadn’t – or worse, I wish I had

Sometimes it's consciously eating at you; other times it lies dormant, ready to pounce. And with regret comes great power. To wish, so intensely, that things were different. That you’d done, said, thought something completely different to what actually happened.

“Regret is when we reflect on the past and are unable to accept our mistakes or missed opportunities,” says occupational therapist Leigh Rorke-Ward. “We are therefore unable to move past the event and we return to the event repetitively in our conscious and unconscious minds, such that it taints our experience of the present.”

Emotive power
Regret is so powerful because it is linked to the universal emotion of sadness, says Anthony McLean from “The reason regret is a strong and common feeling is because we experience many things in our daily lives that are driven out of actual loss or attempts to avoid it.

“On any given day, there may be many situations that could trigger sadness due to real or perceived loss. The other issue is that when we dwell on past losses, it triggers the sadness and the regret for things we have done or opportunities we missed through inaction.”

Rorke-Ward says regret yields such sway because it’s a by-product of our desire for perfection. “Regret is common in our culture because of our tendency to want to get it right and because of the often harsh appraisal of ourselves that we carry in our thoughts. Our thoughts are often harsh, critical or negative and regret is triggered by these thoughts seeking evidence of how we are not good enough.”

Shared regret

Research suggests that regretting something we didn’t do results in similar feelings to regretting something we did, but the former will persist for longer. McLean says this is because re-righting a missed opportunity is almost impossible, as the opportunity is often long gone. “Regrettable action is often easier to manage because we can take steps to minimise the loss. For example, you might apologise, pay for the damage or remove yourself from a situation or environment.”

Feelings of regret are more intense for personally important and reversible outcomes – where you care deeply and know you had the opportunity to act differently. Former palliative carer Bronnie Ware nursed people during the last three to 12 weeks of their lives. She says when questioned about any regrets, common themes surfaced again and again – all of them intensely personal and, in hindsight, reversible.

According to Ware, the most common regret was not living a life true to oneself. People lived lives expected of them by others – they stayed in unhappy marriages, unsatisfying careers and left dreams unfulfilled – because they believed it the right and expected thing to do.

“Most people had not honoured even a half of their dreams and had to die knowing that it was due to choices they had made or not made,” she says. “I think that what is not realised until too late is that it is more painful to lie on your deathbed with regret than face the fears that stop you living this way in the first place.”

A recent study published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science found people most regretted decisions about relationships, family and education. About 44 per cent of women reported romance regrets – feelings that were more common in those not in a relationship. People with low levels of education were likely to regret their lack of education, while those with high levels of education had the most career-related regrets.

“These regrets are common because they are the things that mean the most to us – romance, family and career,” says McLean. “These things are those we believe will make us most happy if we get them right and those we regret most when we don’t.”

The impact of regret on mind and body can have a range of negative consequences. Rorke-Ward says regret increases levels of stress, which in extreme cases can lead to anxiety and depression. Psychologically, dwelling on what might have been can contribute to low levels of confidence and self-esteem.

Moving forward
So how do we move forward and put that nagging feeling to rest for good? McLean says the first step is to accept the regret and move on. “Allow yourself to recover from the negative event, surround yourself with the recovery mechanisms you need but don’t dwell on it for too long,” he says. “Look to the future, set new challenges and focus on the positive things life has to offer.”

Remember that regret is a harsh judgement on yourself, says Ware. “Rather than look back on your life now with regret for the things you could have done differently, have compassion for who you once were. It does not need to be who you are now. Accept that mistakes and learning are a part of life and then move forward with more consciousness of the choices you have before you.”

Rorke-Ward says it's unrealistic to expect life to go to plan all the time and to expect ourselves to make decisions that are always going to work out for the best. After all, there’s no point wishing your life away when it's ripe for enjoyment.

Next: Find happiness at work and learn how to let go of stress.

Photo credit: Thinkstock

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