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How to move past regret when you’re stuck in the past

Maybe you’ve made a mistake. It’s a big one that hurt you or your loved ones. Now, you’re drowning in regret. You may be saying, “I don’t know how to move past regret.”

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. Sometimes, we voice our regrets to others, but people wave them off and dismiss them as if they aren’t real, valid feelings.

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?

Regret 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.

However, regret doesn’t have to last forever. I’ll show you five simple ways to move past your regret to live a happier, healthier, and more fulfilling life once again.

By the end of this article, you may even be grateful for your regrets.

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.

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.

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?

Wrong.

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.

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. 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, 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 go 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 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. The regret sets in.

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.

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.

The reason?

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

It’s important to move past regret—both for your sanity, and your health. Here are the five ways you can move past regret:

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.

As Brene Brown said, “Worthy now. Not if. Not when. We are worthy of love and belonging now. Right this minute. As is.”

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.

Often times, 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.

Forgive yourself.

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 a 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. With regret and stress, you’re hurting your body and mind. To summarize:

  • Fix your mistake, if possible
  • Stop wasting life wallowing
  • Forgive yourself
  • Learn from it
  • Make new goals in your life

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 from 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.

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What do you think?

Notable replies

  1. I’m Kate, and i’m wallowing myself in regret. It’s annoying but it’s true that i don’t know what to do to move past what i did. It’s haunting me, making me guilty and regretted. Everyday i wake up and ask myself why i did that or i by accident am reminded of it by hearing the voices or seeing similar scenes.
    I’m struggling everyday to figure out the way to get over my mistake, eventhough, it has no consequence so far and no one knows about it, except 1 person, who can be considered my “partner in a crime”, but for sure it’s not a crime, just the way i express.
    Hix

  2. You can not go back, no one gets a do over. You only have a path to the future. Regrets have no meaning other than a lesson learned. You will move past by focusing only on what in life lies ahead of you. When you go to bed each night you do not wake up in the past. As you wake up in the future you must focus all your thoughts on the new day. Your past, your regrets are only in your mind and you have full control of that, use it.

  3. Sorry to hear that you’re struggling so much with regret, @katehowelle. I know it can be really difficult and consuming when you feel regret. I’ve been through this myself where I so desperately regreted doing something.

    Now that time has passed I can see that wallowing in regret was counterproductive. I think the steps shared in the article are very useful. Do you find them helpful?

  4. Hi,
    Thank you spending time replying me.
    I don’t know i feel regreted and guilty but then i did again. I don’t know what to do now?
    I’m afraid that i’ll be mentally crazy. I don’t dare to share it, i’m writing here because i know no one here knows who i am, i’m so embarrassed and feel ashamed

    Thanks, hixz

  5. You have nothing to feel bad about sharing, there are no judges here. It is difficult you know when you ask someone for directions to a place and all they want to know is why you wish to go there. It is often a lot more efficient to ask for something you need. Forgiveness? I am sure there are those who can do this but such power is not often encountered. Perhaps you need something but do not know where to find it? That should be manageable, few things can remain hidden from a questioning mind. Tell us your needs, even doing that will help you.

  6. Hi, Kate. I’m sorry to hear about the regret that you’re experiencing. It’s an emotion that’s really tough to deal with. Sometimes we feel so deeply because what happened is important to us. While I don’t know what you’re struggling with, I can tell you that we all experience regret, and I’ve been there myself.

    Many times, it can take awhile before you experience some “relief.” Regret may not go away overnight, but it can be helpful to try the steps in the article and see where they take you.

  7. What i need to do is to focus on finishing my internship, graduating and finding a job after all my hard attempts so far, but i can’t focus on it. I need not to see what reminds me of my mistake, i need to be brave to move out to a new place but it’s unwise to do it now because i know i need to finish what i started: studying, working. I still do thing i feel guilty because i was so lonely here in a new country, may be it helps me fill up my lonely gap. I don’t know. I’m scared.it’s a shame if i’m using loneliness as an excuse for what i did. I’m mature enough to know what i’m doing. I wanted it, then i did it, then i felt regretted but still wanted and did it again. I can’t control myself. Even i tried, i succeeded sometimes but then i lost myself

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Written by Jess Carpenter

I studied at The University of Utah where I earned both my B.S. and M.S. and am a Certified Health Education Specialist (CHES certified). My favorite spot to write is wherever I can see my toddlers to ensure they aren’t jumping from the second story or coloring on the walls.

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