How to Let Go of Regret

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Regret is something that no one enjoys, yet still holds onto. It’s something we often can’t shake off. Having regret causes us to focus more on the past and the “what ifs” rather than the present. This can cause us to become intensely focused on a negative emotion, and unable to reflect on other parts of our lives.

Even though having these emotions are normal, they can hurt your mental well-being if they stay around longer than they should. Regret is something that can sneak up on you at any moment and stay around long after the moment has passed. During times of regret, your thoughts may sound like: 

  • “I messed up and I don’t know if I can fix it.”
  • “I did something I shouldn’t have and now I don’t know what’s going to happen in the future.”

Regret is largely focused on two things: fear and spiraling around the effect of your actions. The combination of an unsettling emotion with the possibility of it going away can cause us to go into a spiral of anxiety. It can cause us to replay imaginary scenarios over and over in our heads.

Although we have all experienced having a “what if” spiral, they are almost never helpful. The past is in the past, and as much as we’d like to change things, we can’t.. Instead of trying to alleviate the anxiety and all-consuming emotions that encompass regret, we tend to stick with them and simply “ride the wave” until it subsides. 

You may feel inclined to put yourself down in times of regret for taking a certain course of action. Remember, though, that we are all human. We are prone to mistakes and imperfections. This is something that can be extremely hard to accept for perfectionists, which is why having regret is not an uncommon thing for them to deal with. But, holding onto that emotion doesn’t make things change for the better—it’s often the opposite effect. Think of regret or these negative emotions as the inner critic or bully that’s loud inside your head. It’s part of you, but it is not you. 

If you are someone who has trouble with letting go of regret, here are three tips that can help you push past regret and move forward:

  1. Acknowledge Regret 

Pushing away the feeling of regret, or denying that you are feeling it at all, will only make you feel worse in the end. By acknowledging these negative emotions, you are then able to explore why they were brought on. Suppressing negative emotions, even if it feels right at the moment, doesn’t make them go away. The next time you’re facing regret, try focusing on these things instead: 

  • Understand why you made that decision. 
  • How did that decision make you feel? 
  • What have you learned from that decision? 

By focusing on what actually happened, you’re able to then have a clearer understanding of what you’re feeling and what you need to do in the future rather than trying to change the past. There is a power in “name it to tame it” when regarding emotions. Instead of trying to get rid of regret quickly, trying a different approach may help you let go of regret easier in the long run.

A book that could help with this is The Illustrated Happiness Trap: How to Stop Struggling and Start Living by Russ Harris. Letting go isn’t easy, but acknowledging the negative emotions may make them easier to understand and  eventually accept. If you’re having trouble with this, a therapist who is trained in ACT (Acceptance and Commitment Therapy) could be able to help you! 

 2. Write Down What You Have Learned From Regret 

Going through the process of regret can cause uncomfortable thoughts and emotions to arise. Instead of harboring all of this in your mind, try writing it all down on paper. Every regretful thought and emotion you feel should now be put to pen and paper. Afterward, take time to reflect on what you wrote and what you have learned from it. Writing down what you have learned can change a negative experience into a more positive one, and give you a better outlook on life.

This also gives you the ability to fact-check your own thoughts. Is it true that things would be totally different if you made a different choice? Or are you giving a “what if” thought too much power? If starting the writing process seems confusing and you don’t know where to start, try a guided journal. This can help give you thoughts for reflecting on your emotions. By changing your relationship with how you view regret, you will see the present and future differently. Instead of holding onto emotions and making them the largest part of you, putting them somewhere else can help you see more clearly. 

 3. Choose To Forgive Yourself 

Forgiveness often comes easier to us when it’s directed outwards towards others, but not so much when it’s inward towards ourselves. We are our own worst critics. Forgiveness can be a really hard thing to accept for yourself, but there are a few ways that may make it easier. When facing regret, remind yourself that you are human and are allowed to make mistakes.

Try talking to yourself how you would with a friend. You wouldn’t bash your friend for making a mistake and give them 10 different ways they could’ve done things differently, right? Holding onto regret can cause you to be unkind to yourself. Remember, we’re not robots—we are going to make mistakes and that’s okay. It’s part of the human experience. When you forgive yourself, you’re also making amends with your regrets.

Forgiveness allows you to let go of all the negative emotions regret has caused. This is often one of the hardest parts for perfectionists, but it’s also extremely important. If you feel like self-love and self-forgiveness is something you want to work on but don’t know how, check out this workbook

So, the next time you’re facing the motions of regret, take a step back and try looking in the mirror and say, “I forgive you.” But if that isn’t your thing, try these affirmations to help forgive yourself. 

  • “I release my anger, shame, embarrassment, and guilt.”
  • “I am a good person that is worthy of healing.” 
  • “I forgive myself for my mistakes, and I allow myself to grow from them.”
  • “I am learning and growing every day.”

Stepping towards self-forgiveness, acknowledging regret, and learning from it, will help you be able to let go of regret much easier. For some individuals,  it’s harder than for others. But, by taking active steps with different approaches, the likelihood of wallowing in the negative emotions and “what ifs” will decrease. It’s important to remember that mistakes, regret, and mishaps are things we all experience and deal with. You’re not alone!

 

References: 

Penerthy, J. K. (2022, May 11). Regret can be all-consuming – a neurobehavioral scientist explains how people can overcome it. The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/regret-can-be-all-consuming-a-neurobehavioral-scientist-explains-how-people-can-overcome-it-172466

Sarner , M. (2019, June 27). Regret can seriously damage your mental health – here’s how to leave it behind. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/jun/27/regret-can-seriously-damage-your-mental-health-heres-how-to-leave-it-behind

Reist, P. L. 10 affirmations for self-forgiveness. Art Of Living (United States). https://www.artofliving.org/us-en/10-affirmations-for-self-forgiveness

 

Cherry, K. (2022, February 14). How to cope with regret. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/how-to-cope-with-regret-5218665

 

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