Regret – it can last for minutes, days, or years. It’s a very real, and valid, reaction to a disappointing thing in your life. It’s one of those feelings that you can’t escape.
Maybe you regret hurting someone close to you. Or you can’t get over the fact that you missed out on a great career opportunity.
Everyone experiences regret in life. Life’s too short to have regrets, but that doesn’t stop them from coming. When the regrets do come, they can take over everything we do.
I’ve been on the wrong end of regret, wondering how I can move on from it. There was even a time I was so stuck in the past that I couldn’t figure out what to do with my life. I was at a standstill.
Are you stuck in the past like I was?
If so, this article will help you understand where this gutwrenching emotion comes from, and how to overcome it and finally move on with your life.
Table of Contents
What is regret?
Regret is a negative conscious state where you’re disappointed in something you did or didn’t do. You may think that you’ve made the wrong choices in your life, or you may believe that the choice you didn’t make has now lead to a less-fulfilling life.
We spoke to Justin Baksh, LMHC, MCAP, Chief Clinical Officer, Foundations Wellness Center, who shared some invaluable insights on regret with us:
Regret is doing (or not doing) something you should (or shouldn’t have) done. You often get this with hindsight, manifesting as feelings of “I knew better!” or “I should’ve known!” Whether either of these statements are true really depends on the circumstances, but both feelings can be experienced with equal inte
Many people look at their pasts and have regrets. They may be simple things like, “I wish I would’ve said something nicer,” or “I never should have gone to that party.”
Regrets can also be serious, heartbreaking things, and I think everyone experiences one “big” regret in their lives.
Baksh continues to explain how different regrets are perceived:
Some refer to this as either missed opportunities on one side and risk taking on the other end. As you can see, there are two sides to this and it lies on a spectrum. So, the “weight” of the regret isn’t always super heavy or impactful, but can still affect us when we feel it.
Whatever regret you’re dealing with, you’re probably feeling sad and disappointed. Many of us replay that event or choice in our heads over and over again. We’re looking for that one moment that we could have done something different.
Who experiences regret?
Deep down, you know that the answer to this question is: Everyone.
Still, when you see that perfect coworker or neighbor who never seems to have any challenges, it’s easy to think that they never experience regret. Someone that perfect can’t feel down about themselves, right?
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Everyone at some point in their lives will experience regret. Your friends, parents, coworkers, that guy at the grocery store who’s your cashier, and you. Every single person in the world experiences regret.
Of course, it’s going to be at different levels. Not everyone will experience regret in the same way, even if we all experience it at some point.
And quite often, people tend to bottle up their regrets. Admitting to mistakes or opportunities passed by isn’t easy.
But what many don’t realize is that talking about regret and understanding why we feel the way we do is the first step to overcoming it.
What is the biggest regret we experience?
When studying people and why they experience regret, researchers from the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that people experience regret more for the things they didn’t do rather than the things they did do.
And Baksh agrees:
From working with clients, I’ve found the biggest regrets stem from the moments when they should’ve and they didn’t. Whether it’s missed job opportunities, talking to that other person, taking the promotion, making the move, taking credit when due, speaking up to an intense/intrusive family member, the road not taken is typically the number one regret. Even though it can also occur from taking a chance, the individual seems to experience a resigned comfort for at least trying.
Think about it. With a little time and energy, you can fix almost any mistake. Though things may seem bleak or lost at times, you can usually turn it around.
However, you can never go back and do the thing you’d been considering. The only thing you can do is look upon that lost opportunity and wonder what it would be like if you had done it.
This leaves us confused and hurt, wishing for that opportunity. While we don’t know whether it would’ve ended up good or bad, but we still wonder.
Why do some regrets hurt more than others?
Whether we did or didn’t do something, it’s clear that some regrets hurt more than others. They linger, fester, and leave us with life-altering emotions. We experience both types of regret—for things that we did wrong and for things that we could have done.
When you do something wrong or make a decision that brings on regret, it’s frustrating, but it doesn’t often haunt you like the decisions you never made.
Researchers Shai Davidai and Tom Gilovich studied why that happens with regret. What they found is that when you make a choice that you or someone else says is wrong, you can repair it.
Let’s say you chose to go on a date with someone new instead of going to a coworker’s birthday party.
The date turned out to be disastrous and your coworker is mad at you. You probably regret going on that date.
Now, you can use that regret and learn from it. It starts reparative work that allows you and everyone else to move on.
On the flip side, let’s say you don’t interview for a job at your dream company. Instead, you look at the person working in that position and think about everything that could’ve been.
You could be making more money, rising in success like that person, but instead, you’re stuck at your job.
In the second example, you can’t do anything. The job was given to someone else, and there’s no way to fix that. You have to wait until another opportunity comes along.
Different regrets hurt worse depending on who or what they involve.
If you miss a coworker’s party for a date, it’s not the worst thing in the world. However, if you miss your best friend’s wedding, that’s a big deal.
You’ll question your relationship with them and feel guilty. Why did you miss your best friend’s wedding? Are they really even a friend if you felt it’s okay to miss their biggest day?
These regrets cause guilt because you messed up. The more important the people are to you, the more hurt the regret causes.
And when it comes to regrets that sting more than others, Baksh weighs in to explain how this can be very subjective depending on our own expectations and perceptions:
The perceived value of the reward that would have been obtained is what makes regrets more or less painful. Our material, financial, mental, emotional, and spiritual selves all have a price point, if you will. If we feel that we missed an opportunity to enhance our bottom line, then the hurt seems to sting a little more.
The truth is, we all have different bottom lines. One person’s values are different from his neighbor or friend. This could explain why some regrets seem incredibly painful to us but aren’t always understood by those around us.
The self-discrepancy theory
Davidai and Gilovich found that regrets, and the pain they cause, are actually rooted in the self-discrepancy theory developed by E. Tory Higgins. Basically, this theory talks about why we experience regret.
Because we compare our current self and our actions to our ideal self and their actions. When our actual selves aren’t in line with our ideal persona, it causes guilt and frustration. However, there are actually three “selves” that we have, and when they don’t match up with each other, they cause regrets.
The three selves
- Our actual selves: This is who we are, or who we think we are. It’s what we hold dear to our hearts, what our strongest and weakest qualities are, and how we go about our daily lives.
- Our ought selves: This is who we think we should be. Maybe your parents, spouse, or friends pressure you to have more ambition, less frustration, or something else that you don’t currently have. You hold onto these thoughts and feelings and believe that you should have these traits.
- Our ideal selves: This is who we’d like to be. It doesn’t have to be today or tomorrow, but it’s our “perfect” self. For some, that’s a better job. For others, maybe it’s more patience. It can be anything, but basically, think of it as the you who lives in your dream life.
We set goals on a daily basis, and whether we’re aware of it or not, we probably have an idea of what it would be like to be that perfect person.
Even though you say something like, “In the future, I want to make more money, have a better house, and not be so angry all of the time,” that doesn’t mean you’re granted all of that.
It’s easy to see that we’re not our ideal selves, even if we are working to become those people.
However, what’s really interesting is that regret is strongest when our actual self and ideal self differ. When the person you are now does something your ideal self wouldn’t do, 72% feel regret.
In the study, the author compares regrets with our ought self as potholes in the road. Though they may cause problems, we can fix them.
Regrets with our ideal self are different because it’s like looking through the windshield of life and seeing somewhere you’ll never be able to reach. You’ve fallen short, and you think it’s a mistake.
So, what can you do?
How can we move past regret?
Regret is like a bad housemate that you want to get rid of but can’t because the lease isn’t up.
Are you sitting around saying, “I don’t know what to do with my life” and dragging your feet through the day? I’ve been there, and I promise, nearly everyone has. It’s nothing to be ashamed of or embarrassed for.
So, you made a mistake. That’s life. I just don’t want you to have to struggle with something that you can move on from.
When you can’t stand the hurt, guilt, and lingering pain, it’s time to move past your regret.
Still, while that sounds great, I know it’s hard. You can’t wave a magic wand and kiss your regrets goodbye. It’d be awesome if there was a regret cure, one that would get rid of all the lingering effects, but there’s not.
Truth be told, moving past regret isn’t easy. Don’t worry, I’ve got you. These next methods are going to make you happy and healthy again.
5 ways to move past your regret
Regret hurts, and to make things worse, it’s also unhealthy. When you’re wallowing in guilt and despair, your mental and physical health takes a hit. Regret comes with stress. Stress comes with a long host of health problems, like:
- Depression, anxiety, and other personality disorders
- Increase in cortisol
- Weight gain
- Cardiovascular disease
- And more
Baksh explains that to move past regret, you’ve first got to be honest with yourself:
Being truthful with yourself is one way to process regret. If you are upset because you got outmaneuvered, played, or simply outperformed then you need to address (your own) issues. You can’t blame others for being more skilled, prepared, or ready than you are. Learning limits and setting realistic boundaries and expectations are the way to minimize regret.
It’s important to move past regret—both for your sanity, and your health. Once you’ve taken the plunge and faced the truth, here are a few other ways to overcome it:
1) Take action to fix it, if possible
The first thing you can do to move on from your regret is to take action to fix it—if possible. Like I mentioned earlier, if your regret has to do with your “ought” self, it may be an easier regret to fix. Maybe it’s something that you did do and now regret.
There’s no reason that you can’t try to fix it.
So, you said something harsh? Apologize.
Took the wrong job? Find something new that you like.
Of course, there are plenty of regrets that you can’t fix. You can’t go back in time and make a choice that you never made. If the regret has to do with life and death, it’s probably not something you can change either.
In my own life, I had one of these regrets. I agonized over it, wishing that I could go back to that time and do something. But, I couldn’t. I knew that I had to move on because years later, it was still bothering me.
If the regret isn’t something you can fix, a different method may work better.
2) Stop wallowing in it
Stop wallowing in your regret. It’s an easy thing to say. However, changing isn’t so easy. If you want to stop wallowing in your regret, there are a few things that you can do.
First, recognize the amount of time you’ve been dealing with this regret. Is it one day, one month, one year, or more? Look at that amount of time and see what you’ve done with your life in that time.
Has the pain lessened or worsened throughout the time you’ve spent wallowing?
Here’s the thing: Time continues even if you’re struggling with regret.
No matter how long you’ve been struggling with regret, you’ve still wasted time. Nothing happens when you’re upset over an experience that did or didn’t happen.
You can wallow in it all you want, but being sad or frustrated won’t change anything. In fact, it only makes things worse.
3) Forgive yourself
You’re upset. It’s understandable. Your life could be completely different had you made a different choice.
However, there’s no telling whether that life would be better or worse than the one you’re currently living. Many times, we look at the future and the choices we missed out on. We think that life would be different and better had we just done that one thing we didn’t do.
No one, absolutely no one, can say whether your life would be better than what it is right now. You have to learn to forgive yourself for what was or wasn’t and learn that you matter.
Your life today, however, messed up you may think it is, still matters.
Every person makes mistakes. Without mistakes, we wouldn’t have a life. We wouldn’t be able to learn and grow, to change and create a new life.
There is no one on the planet who hasn’t made a mistake.
Oftentimes, we forgive others more than we forgive ourselves.
We’re our harshest critics, and we forget that we’re just people, struggling to find our way through a tough life. Along that bumpy road, we’re going to make mistakes.
You’re worthy of belonging. You’re worthy of love. You’re worthy of the life that you want. Don’t waste more time on your regret—we all make mistakes.
4) Ask what you’ve learned from it
If you’re still struggling to forgive yourself, recognize the regret as a learning experience.
Eckhart Tolle said, “Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful in the evolution of your consciousness.”
Let’s break that down. Life’s going to give you experiences to help you learn and grow. Many times, when we fail to make a decision and it leads to regret, we don’t think of it as a learning experience.
In fact, that’s why so many people have an easier time getting over the regret that occurs when we did something wrong. If we land the wrong job, we can learn what to do the next time we look for a job. If we make a bad investment, we learn to better invest.
On the flip side, when we don’t take a job, we don’t see it as a learning experience. Really, what is there to learn from not making a decision?
Find that something. Find what it is that you should learn from. Even if it’s as simple as knowing that for the next time you’ll make a decision. Anything you can learn from the experience, do it.
5) Make new goals
Finally, it’s time to make new goals. One way to move on from your past is to focus on your future. Set goals to make a change, preferably in an area of your life that your regret is in.
That job you didn’t take? Make a goal to find something that you truly love.
The girl/guy that got away? Focus on the qualities you liked in that person, then look for that in your dating life.
Maybe you did something really hurtful. Something like the tragedies portrayed in movies. It doesn’t matter the regret, you can still make goals to change your life.
Start small. No one says you have to completely change your life or the world. Maybe you make a small goal, like going out each day for a run.
Maybe you make a big goal, like changing careers. Whatever it is, a goal can give you the focus and determination to move past the lingering regret.
No more saying, “I don’t know what to do with my life”
Starting today, commit to moving past the regret. Admit that you’re worthy of a happy and healthy life.
The truth is, we all suffer from regret at different points in life. Some regret stays with us for years, while mistakes are easier to move on from.
Baksh makes the important point of remembering how time and patience is are essential to moving on:
People suffering from regret want to know how long it takes to get over it. How long do mental, emotional, and spiritual wounds take to heal? In essence, that’s exactly what we are struggling with the most… understanding that regret is a wound and will need time to heal. Just as you would with a physical wound, don’t pick at the scab. Don’t ruminate over the loss or regret. But don’t completely dismiss it, either.
So in addition to the tips above, he recommends that you:
Objectively reflect on the scenario – your performance, decision-making, and other fac
tors that contributed to the situation. When you make changes based on the knowledge of where you’ve been and why it can help you to hopefully have less regret moving forward.
You see, every minute you spend regretting that choice you did or didn’t make is a moment that you could be making new choices—ones that could change your life for the better.
Move past your regret. Your regrets can lead to some of the most beautiful times in your life. Though it may not be an overnight change, remember: You’re worth it, and you have the power to learn from your mistakes.