Regret: A feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment over something that has happened or been done.
From a psychological standpoint, regret is a negative cognitive or emotional state that involves blaming ourselves for a bad outcome, feeling a sense of loss or sorrow at what might have been, or wishing we could undo a previous choice that we made.
Most, if not all, of us want to live life with no regrets; some push life to the ultimate limit and want to experience just about everything. But sometimes the craziness of life’s day-to-day tasks gets in the way of making progress towards your ideal life.
Unfortunately, while you may be busy with the routines of life, time may fly by all too fast and before you know it you may be looking back on your life with some big regrets.
Regret can have damaging effects on mind and body when it turns into fruitless rumination and self-blame that keeps people from re-engaging with life. This pattern of repetitive, negative, self-focused ruminative thinking is characteristic of depression—and may be a cause of this mental health problem as well. Other research shows that regret can result in chronic stress, negatively affecting hormonal and immune system functioning. Regret impedes the ability to recover from stressful life events by extending their emotional reach for months, years, or lifetimes.
The best way to limit these regrets is first by understanding what the biggest ones are and second, by taking action before its too late.
Here are some of the biggest regrets people may have as they look back upon their lives.
Sweating the Small Stuff- In surveys, the elderly report regret over having wasted so much time and energy stressing over little things of life. That’s understandable though, right? We all know that at the end of the day, not to mention the end of our lives, it probably doesn’t really matter that your spouse forgot to take out the trash, or that your dog pooped on the carpet, or that you had a bad hair day.
Letting those things go can free up so much energy that we can redirect towards appreciating the big stuff. Worrying is the number one way of wasting precious time, time that you can never get back, which in turn severely affects your happiness, so if you’re going to do it, make sure it’s about something important.
Not Making Amends- It’s no surprise that not making amends with old friends and family members is a regret. Sure, sometimes we need to let go of toxic people in our lives. Other times, we hold grudges that aren’t healthy and definitely don’t make us happy.
Always take a minute to reflect on each situation. There is definitely at least one opportunity to make amends that popped into your head when you heard the statement, right? Think about whether you really want to move on or if you might want to mend that bridge. Remember that sometimes making amends isn’t about making the other person feel better, but about your mental wellbeing, letting go of anger or bitterness, or some other unhealthy emotion.
Words left unsaid- Another way that fear stops us from living our lives to the fullest is that so often we are afraid to speak our minds, to tell people how we feel, or to say something that might make us vulnerable. Of course, that includes the usual suspects: “I love you,” and “I’m sorry.” But withholding your feelings when you’re struggling, hurt, or upset can cause just as much damage to our relationships and lead to serious regret in the long-term. Choose your words wisely, we don’t want to be hurtful, but say what you feel. When you don’t you are withholding a little bit of the truth inside.
Not following their passion.- Again, most of us aren’t exactly encouraged to follow our passions in this workaholic society that believes in a conventional life of having a good 9-5 job, loving your spouse, adorable children and an oversized home. Doing what you love doesn’t necessarily mean giving all that up and quitting your job to become a painter, or moving to Costa Rica to lead retreats every day (although it totally can, though).
Do some real reflecting on why your dream job is your dream job, and whether you’re truly setting yourself up to be happy with what you do. I encourage my clients to ask themselves: what do you want, why do you want it and what are you going to do to get it.
Unaccomplished Goals- Goals are super important, like intentions, they are the coordinates that we navigate through life with, but I’ll be the first to admit that sometimes I let life get in the way of completing items. Surely many people at the end of their lives have fallen into this trap and have regrets about not achieving their dreams.
Things like busy work and, let’s keep it real, laziness can hold us back. But more often than not its fear that stops us from reaching our goals. Writing down your goals is a good step, but it’s only the first step. Figure out one thing that you can do every day to get one step closer to achieving what you really want.
Working too much- Put your phone away! Having our phones in our pockets can mean constant access, making it harder than ever to mentally clock out at the end of the day. Add that to the double barrels of having a home office and that most employees aren’t encouraged to take time off of work, and it is easy to see that we live in a real workaholic culture.
Even if your job brings you genuine joy (this might be a good time to ask yourself: by the way, does it?) and you tend to overwork yourself, at some point you’ll probably regret not having carved out more free time to explore the other things you love. I love what I do, but it comes at an energetic price. I must always be mindful that I need to recharge my batteries so that I can show up for those whom I serve in my best and highest way.
Worrying too much about what others think.- Everyone struggles with this self-consciousness in a different way, and for many it takes a long time to overcome. Interestingly, we all tend to walk around worrying what others think of us. But think about it for a minute, how much time do you actually spend analyzing others and judging their decisions? Not much really and neither do I. When it comes right down to it, they are probably not concerned with analyzing you a thousandth as much as you’re doing it to yourself.
The sooner we let go of this inhibition, the sooner we’ll be able to be our true selves and focus the things that actually bring us joy.
Taking life too seriously. – It’s difficult to fully imagine which of our stressors, achievements, failures, and dreams will still seem important to us when we’re on our deathbeds. But you can probably come up with a pretty good idea in the moment if you need to. Many of the things that we believe are “the end of the world” in the moment won’t even matter in 10 to 20 years, maybe even in a month.
It’s easy to remind ourselves not to sweat the little things, but sometimes we need reminding that those ‘big’ stressors might not actually be so big either. Plus, most times you have no control over them, just the way you react to them. So, take the time to put things into perspective and learn to laugh a little more.
Not listening to their intuition. – We all know what will make us happy—and often, it’s not even buried that deep down. We can get a little mixed up and need to correct our course sometimes, but we also know what it feels like to be drawn towards one decision only to have our instinct tell us to go in another direction.
Not listening to that instinct can get us into all kinds of messes that can feel completely overwhelming; winding up in a career that you don’t enjoy, in a city you don’t love, or neglecting a passion that you slowly let fall to the side. Check in with yourself—that intuition wants to be heard.
Not spending more time with family and friends. In the end, our relationships with family, friends, and partners bring us more joy than working or superficial successes do. At the end of their lives, people so often regret not having spent more time with their kids, not having been a better spouse, and not keeping in touch with friends and relatives.
Luckily, this is a fairly easy one to fix: look at your calendar for the week, figure out how much time you spend in the office or doing household duties, and compare that to how much free time you have. Schedule in spending times with your loved ones, just like you would any other appointment.
For young people in particular, regret, although painful to experience, can be a helpful emotion. The pain of regret can result in refocusing and taking corrective action or pursuing a new path. However, the less opportunity one has to change the situation, the more likely it is that regret can turn into rumination and trigger chronic stress that damages mind and body.
What Can We Do to Cope With Regret?
We can harness the functional aspects of regret, which, like all emotions, has a function for survival. It is our brain’s way of telling us to take another look at our choices, a signal that our actions may be leading to negative consequences. Regret is a major reason why addicts get into recovery.
If there is nothing you can do to change the situation, let it go. If you get stuck blaming yourself and regretting past actions, this could turn into depression and damage your self-esteem. Find a way to forgive yourself and let it go. You could think about what you would say to a loved one in the same situation to make them feel better. Most people have an easier time forgiving others than themselves.
Make sure you are not taking too much blame. Consider the circumstances that may have made it more difficult to make good choices in that particular instance, or the fact that you had limited knowledge at the time. Perhaps you had to make a quick decision under time pressure or had multiple stresses going on.
Reframe the situation more positively. Think about life as a journey. Everybody makes mistakes. They can be opportunities to learn important lessons about yourself—including your values, vulnerabilities, and triggers—as well as about other people. You can also use past regrets to decide how to take better care of yourself in the future.
Regret can be an aversive emotion impacting life-satisfaction. However, if regret is confronted appropriately, it can have a positive effect. Regret can lead to a retrospective analysis that may help people understand the reason why they thought or acted as they did. At that time, there may have been a specific reason. By making sense of their past thoughts or actions, individuals may:
Feel less pain, remorse, and self-condemnation; Change their thoughts and behavior that will lead to a desired outcome; Learn from their mistakes and incorporate this into their subsequent decisions and actions.
Regret is an emotional mechanism. If one ruminates on lost opportunities, then regret becomes maladaptive and can stymie growth. On the other hand, if regret reminds us that our time is short and that opportunities may be transitory, it helps us strive for a life well-lived.
On a daily level, being self-aware can help you make incremental changes. But after decades of making those small adjustments, hopefully we can avoid sharing some of the common regrets listed above and instead harness the functional aspects of regret. I hope to learn from these lessons and continue to live a “no regrets” kind of life and I hope you can, too