We’re all guilty of playing the ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ game from time to time. Sometimes, it’s natural to consider how your life would be different if you made another decision, didn’t make a particular mistake, or headed in a new direction. However, if thinking about the past or imagining a parallel reality fills you with dread or pain, you may be holding on to regret.
By definition, regret is an emotion where we realize or imagine that our current reality could have had a better outcome if we had done something differently in the past, according to Ernesto Lira de la Rosa, a psychologist and the Hope for Depression Research Foundation media advisor. Regret is typically accompanied by cognitive and emotional recognition that our choices led us to an undesirable outcome, leading us to feel a sense of loss when we think of missed opportunities.
We hold ourselves back by holding on to regret because we spend more of our hours obsessing about the past rather than being in the moment or looking ahead to the future. “Regret engages counterfactual thinking is the ability to compare an actual event with an alternative event that may have occurred but did not,” he continues. “We can get caught up in this cycle and may eventually approach situations with fear. Or perhaps we may shy away from making difficult decisions.”
If you’re guilty of clinging to what could have been, here are some ways to release regret and move forward:
Usually, regret stems from an experience where perhaps, we could have handled the situation better. Maybe you said something you wish you could take back. You denied a job offer that would have made you happy. Or ignored a phone call you should have taken. Whatever the case, it’s vital to engage your logical side rather than dwelling on the intense emotions accompanying the regret.
This helps you release the regret because you are looking at it with realistic eyes, explains psychologist Dr. Yvonne Thomas, Ph.D. “You can identify if the circumstances were expected or unpredictable and if the situation was under your control or not. Then, you need to determine what you should have done or not done to reach a more healthy result. By evaluating all of these factors to see if you could have changed the outcome of the situation to a more positive one, it helps you to objectively determine if there genuinely is a reason to feel regret or not,” she says.
Try to find a positive in the situation.
Sometimes, there’s not always a silver lining in every experience. However, most of the time, there could be a lesson learned. While it might not take away the pain you experience from your regret, it does help you with decision-making in the future, explains Jessica Ermilio, PsyD, a clinical psychologist at Humantold.
“Consider whether there are things that you may have learned from your experience. If you reencountered a similar situation, you might now know how to handle it differently. Take time to sit down and think about the things that you have learned from your situation and how that may motivate you now to do things differently,” she says.
Make amends if you can.
If you insulted or hurt someone you care or cared about, there could be room to make amends. This will release some of your regrets because you are admitting your mistake, Dr. Thomas says. Before you open the invite to chat, she recommends pinpointing the behaviors or words that you need to apologize for to be prepared for the discussion. “It is much more sincere to know specifically what you feel sorry about and what you are accountable for when it comes to apologizing,” she says. And though you may put your heart on the line, make sure to manage your expectations. The person may or may not forgive you, but that should not keep you from forgiving yourself.
Lean into the discomfort.
When we experience regret, we experience a lot of discomfort, unpleasant feelings and emotions, de la Rosa says. And as humans, it’s natural to avoid this discomfort by ignoring it or pushing it away because it does not feel good. While that’s okay, it can be beneficial to lean into those feelings to process them better. “We can try to get to know it and invite the discomfort in our lives. If we do this, we may feel less shame, doubt, sadness when we experience regret in the future,” he says.
This is part of treating yourself with compassion rather than beating yourself up over the regret you’re feeling. “We can remind ourselves that we are human beings that often make mistakes. We can tell ourselves that we decided in the past based on the information we had available at that time. We may have more information in the present moment and know that we will use this experience to make different choices in the future,” he says.