Regrets. We are always told to live without them. Yet when every decision in life is bound to a specific context and time while our evaluations of them often enjoy far more freedom, having no regrets seems a tall order. 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.
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.
Why trying to avoid regrets does not work: the pink elephant conundrum
Let’s imagine that I’ve asked you to NOT think of a pink elephant or a situation you regret.
How well did you do?
It is impossible. To not think of something requires that you bring the situation to mind in the first place. Then, that you dismiss it, or try. Once you have the image in your mind, however, 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!
What to do instead?
To beat getting sucked in you need to focus on what you want! 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. By changing your thought patterns from the past to the future, you can sidestep regrets. If needed review past situations but focus on what made things work!
Working with regrets in 3 easy steps
- Acknowledge the regret. 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 to awake our willingness to face our shortcomings and to be willing to address them.
- Take action to address what you need to do better next time.
- Focus on the learning. This includes being compassionate with yourself. At any given moment people tend to do the best with what’s available to them. We are all smarter in hindsight. What you can do today is different as you are different.
Our minds are constantly learning. Pay attention. Being productive means using the minds to reflect, consider and learn so we can be our best selves.
Practice feeling excited about the future.
Put your mind 100% on the present moment and bring your heart, body, and spirit to it.
You will have fewer regrets.