Superman did it, but you can’t. The past is unchangeable. Period. End of story. The could’ve and should’ve clearly doesn’t help, but we do it anyway. We regret. What’s up with this destructive pattern and how do we change it? Today, I’m going to walk you through my three-step process to stop regretting an unhappy past and start living in a happy now.
Let’s Start with the Basics of Regret
I’m not saying regret is all bad. It can be a great way to learn from a past mistake and do better next time. However, if you’re reading this right now, that’s not your issue (those other people are off having fun right now). Your issue is that regret keeps coming up and it’s hurting your mental health. So, that’s what I’m addressing today.
Regret is all about a belief you’re holding that you missed an opportunity! If you’re feeling regret, you believe that if you had made different choices, you would’ve had a better outcome in whatever situation you’re upset about. So what this really means is that you’re beating up on yourself and undermining your self-esteem. This unhealthy, negative emotional state results in self-blame, doubt and low self-worth. Yuck!
For example, after a divorce or break up there are generally lots of regrets, all related to how you believe you could’ve changed the outcome, all starting with the phrase, “if only….”
“If only I’d realized how unhappy my husband was, I could’ve done something before he left me.” “If only I hadn’t said the wrong thing at dinner, she wouldn’t have broken up with me.”
What Does the Research on Regret Say?
There’s been a lot of research on regret. For a long time, the biggest areas of regret, in order, were: education, career, romance, parenting, self and then leisure.
But more recent research shows that romance is actually at the top of that list.
There are some gender differences though. In general, romantic regrets are higher for women, than men. About 44% of women have romantic relationship regrets, versus about 19% of men. In general, men still show the most amount of regret when it comes to work and career.
In his book, 30 Lessons for Living: Tried and True Advice from the Wisest Americans, Dr. Karl Pillemer and his team interviewed 1500 people over the age of 65 about their life choices. One of the main consistencies they found is that older people couldn’t believe how much time they wasted over resentments, petty fights, and their anxiety. They deeply regretted worrying about things that never even happened or that they really had no control over. As one of the participants summed up, “You’re going to wish you had that time back. You’ll regret spending so much time in mindless, self-destructive ruminating.”
Timing is a big factor too. Over short time periods people are more likely to regret some action they took or a mistake they made. However, over long time periods people are more likely to regret what they didn’t do. The actions they didn’t take! Things like missed opportunities for love or working too hard and not spending enough time with their friends and family – those are the biggest regrets.
And if you’re outside the US, the research on regret in the US seems to hold true for other places such as countries in Europe and Australia.
But what about countries that are less individualistic than the US? Do people in the US tend to regret things they failed to do more than things they did because of our obsession with action and self-actualization? In five studies across three less individualistic cultures (China, Japan, and Russia) researchers found the same results: regretting inactions, more than actions in the long-term.
So, what can you do?
Here’s the 3-Step Process for Making Regret a Thing of the Past (pun intended):
Step 1: Meet it Head On
Regret is a message. All feelings are a message, a signal; they’re letting you know something. Usually it’s about a pattern of behavior. Maybe you stay up late too often and regret it the next day. Maybe you unknowingly sabotage romantic relationships and can’t believe the things you did when you look back. Maybe you never speak your mind at meetings at work and end up resentful and beating yourself up.
It’s important to recognize your feelings! Remember you feel the way you think. Do you think you’re a victim? “There’s nothing I can do. I’m stuck!” Do you think things like, “If I’m wrong, I’ll be so embarrassed so I won’t say anything.” Do you tell yourself it’ll be too painful to be vulnerable with a partner? Do you believe all relationships end in pain, so why bother? There are lots of beliefs we have – you can tell a negative belief because you feel shitty!
An easy way to identify limiting beliefs is to notice “I am” statements in the negative. Regret goes after our feelings of self-worth (I’m such an idiot; I’m not disciplined).
Thinking, “I can’t believe I did that, I’m so stupid!” will have you feeling depressed, anxious, fearful, worthless, and hopeless and it works like this for everything.
Another great way to rethink and reframe negative thinking and beliefs is to use Rational Emotive Therapy. I’ve got a simple and super-effective RET exercise to help you change your thoughts and feelings about a particular situation that you can download at the end of this post and/or you can check out a full blog post dedicated to RET here.
The other way to meet regret head on is to identify the role it plays in your life. Usually, it’s a defense mechanism to shield yourself from hurt either consciously or unconsciously. Maybe you had a really bad relationship and you’ve got lots of regrets about it. If only I’d x… I wish I had y…. You start dating again but you’re so afraid to make a mistake and have regrets that you keep finding things wrong with the other person or creating a negative environment where they don’t want a second date. You don’t want to have the pain of the old breakup again, so you won’t take any risks. It might be time to acknowledge these limiting beliefs and get into therapy or find another way to break through the lies you’re telling yourself.
Step 2: Give a Real Apology… to Yourself
What are you talking about, Abby?! Well, it’s time for a little self-compassion and to apologize to yourself.
Say to yourself:
“I’m sorry for thinking you had to be perfect all the time. I’m sorry for not allowing you some grace in your life. I’m sorry that I held you to a higher standard than I hold anyone else. I’m sorry for being so unreasonable as to expect you to have no mistakes and no lapses in judgment. I’m sorry for not realizing that this is how every single person on the planet learns: through their mistakes; through trial and error.”
That’s right my friend; You really can’t live without making mistakes! There’s a quote I love by Rita Mae Brown: “Good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.”
It’s time to forgive yourself for not being perfect and to let that shit go!
Step 3: Figure Out What You Do Want
Your past mistake didn’t ruin your life or your career or your chance at love. It’s your belief about your past mistake that’s ruining your life or making you upset. You’re the one screwing up your life now!
So, from now on, you’re going to do something very simple the next time you notice yourself regretting something. Regret tells you what you don’t want, so I want you to say out loud, very clearly, what you do want. And there are only two rules:
- You can’t change the past so what you do want can’t rely on the world spinning the opposite way on its axis, a time travel machine or bringing people back from the dead.
- Rule two is that what you do want can’t be contingent on any other person. In other words, it needs to be solely within your control and can’t involve you controlling anyone else.
Let’s roll out some examples:
Regret: I didn’t make peace with my dad before he died.
What I do want: I want to work on my current relationships with the important people in my life so never feel this way again. I want to connect with my mother in such a way that she knows how much I love and appreciate her. I’m going to let go of petty resentments with my sister because I see how unimportant all that is now.
Regret: I should have stayed in school and gotten a degree! Now I’m trapped in a dead-end job.
What I do want: I want to love my work. School’s not the only measure of a good job. Heck, tons of successful people only have a high school education. I’m going to start doing some deeper examination of what kind of job I would like to have. It’s really never too late to go back to school. I’m going to make it a priority to finish that degree now.
Regret: I drove my ex away and now I’m alone.
What I do want: I want to create a relationship where I feel loved and cherished and where my partner feels the same. I’m going to go to therapy and work on my issues and then I’m going to start dating again. I want to love myself and feel confident in my decisions so I’m going to go to x workshop and start a journaling practice every morning to uncover my blind spots.
It’s all about figuring out what you do want to feel and be and then taking one small action to move yourself towards that goal.
I’m going to leave you with a quote by actor William Shatner (I’m hoping the original Star Trek series has been seen in most countries): “Regret is the worst human emotion. If you took another road, you might have fallen off a cliff.”