Originally published 12 January 2019. Updated 24 October 2022 for accuracy and relevance.
How do you handle regret? Do past events weigh you down and get in the way of your success? In this post we look at how to improve your future outcomes by paying close attention to how you handle regret. Plus you will learn 4 steps to handle regret better.
Regrets, I’ve had a few
The song title resonates because we all have regrets. Wouldn’t you like to live without them?
You may be living the life you have always dreamed of and yet you may still regret the paths not taken. Some people even regret things that they have no control over. For example, people may regret where or when they were born.
A healthier approach to regrets may be to aim to have fewer of them. Even better is to avoid repeating situations that are regrettable. In the meantime, considering how we approach regrets is worthwhile for the following reason.
Why is regret so painful?
Regrets can help us learn but they can also be crippling.
Our brains use deduction and prediction to constantly learn about the world. To achieve this, the mind associates cause with effect. When you see something happening to another person or take action yourself, your mind is on. It evaluates what action results in desirable outcomes and what creates disappointment. This activity happens largely without us being aware.
Negative outcomes can be great learning experiences. We call them mistakes. Not getting what we want can also demotivate. When this happens we don’t want to try again.
Feelings of regret are negatively correlated with self-esteem and motivation. To take action we need to feel motivated. Low self-esteem dampens and can extinguish motivation.
Having healthy levels of self-esteem and motivation is thus essential for wellbeing. Lack of them can be an indicator of depression.
A string of regrets can easily escalate to self-loathing. As each regret comes to mind our focus is skewed towards situations that did not work out. Feeling drowned in a past full of regrets can easily overwhelm our positive and resourceful brain centers. This makes it harder to remain level-headed in our approach and evaluation of different situations.
Dwelling on regrets will also erode your ability to be present. With less attention given to what is needed in the now, we are more likely to make mistakes and sabotage the results yet again. The cycle of more regrets begins to loop with the future being no different to the past.
Don’t think about the pink elephant
If I ask you not to think about a pink elephant, what happens? You immediately picture a pink elephant. It’s impossible not to! This is the Pink Elephant Paradox.
Not thinking of something requires you to think of the thing in the first place. Then you have to try to dismiss it. Once you have the image in your mind, trying to get rid of it proves harder than you may think.
As long as you try not to think about the pink elephant, you will think about the pink elephant anyway.
It’s the same with regrets. As soon as you try not to think about what you regret, you’re thinking about it!
4 steps to handle regret better
Try these practical steps to help you handle regret and move on.
1. Acknowledge the regret
The key to handling regret is acknowledgment, not denial. Taking responsibility is incredibly empowering.
For example, maybe your relationship ended because you deprioritized it or took it for granted. You may have failed or gotten a bad outcome because you got started on the task too late and did a poor job. Perhaps you lost a great opportunity because you lacked confidence and took yourself out of the running.
A healthy way to work with regret is grounded in a willingness to face our own shortcomings. Once you are prepared to address your part in the situation, you will be empowered to move forward.
2. Take a step back to take a step forward
Taking a step back from the regret will help you separate your feelings from the facts. With a cool head, you can take action to address what you need to do better next time.
3. Focus on learning and growth
This includes being compassionate with yourself. At any given moment we all tend to make the best decision with the available information. We are all smarter in hindsight. What you can do today is different as you are different. Celebrate your ability to learn and grow.
Our minds are constantly learning. Being productive means using the minds to reflect, consider and learn so we can be our best selves.
4. Get excited about the future
By changing your thought patterns from the past to the future, you can sidestep regrets. Review past situations if you need to, but focus on what made things work!
Dwelling on regret leaves you stuck in a past that you can’t change. Put your mind 100% on the present moment and bring your heart, body, and spirit to it. You will have fewer regrets.
Leave the past where it belongs, in the past. Instead, consider something you want to create or happen. Bring positive and hopeful emotions to it. It could be a hobby that you want to start, a date that you are going to create for or with someone, a business meeting that you want to make happen, or a deal you wish to close.
Investing in your future ability to handle regret effectively
Regrets don’t go away but you can keep on top of them by coming back to these 4 steps when you need them. If you’re looking to improve your mindset so that you can handle regret better in the future, our 14 Day Habit Builder challenge will keep you on track.