We all regret some of the choices we made, the opportunities we missed or the things that didn’t go our way. But the important thing is to realise that holding on to such regrets can immobilise us.
Regret holds us back
The most useful perspective we can have about our regrets is to look at them as lessons and to trust that we always chose the best option available at that time.
When we start to doubt and question our decisions of the past, it’s a short step to second-guessing our present, and ultimately ourselves. By doing so, we may also end up labelling our present as a mistake. It is far more empowering to believe that where we are today is exactly where we need to be and all the past experiences were there to teach us some lessons. We need to develop the ability to let go of the past to move forward with confidence.
Here are some tips to help you move on.
- Stop your regrets in the track. Catch yourself thinking of a particular regret, and get into the habit of always asking yourself, “What’s great about that situation?” This is a very empowering question, as it forces you to look at the positives and the lessons you learnt. There is always a lesson—even in pain and sadness. Look for the lesson and focus on it instead of what might have been.
- Don’t whine. Stop telling people your sad-story. Instead tell people how great the situation was for you and all that you learnt from it, which will not let you repeat the mistake.
- Forgive fully. We have to forgive ourselves fully and if there are other people involved, seek their forgiveness too. It is important to understand that we would never deliberately or unnecessarily choose a path that causes pain or suffering to anyone, including ourselves. What looks like a wrong decision now, was probably the best one back then in the light of all the factors involved.
How we make decisions
Being comfortable is a level of being alive, which stems from our basic survival instinct. We tend to choose the painless or easy option, even in cases when it would be the least uncomfortable option.
To illustrate this, imagine you are in a room, out of a James Bond or Mission Impossible movie. The walls are slowly closing in and you have one minute before you are squashed salami. You have to think fast and smart and make a choice. On the ground are three manholes. One is a smelly sewerage, which is shallow. The second is with white sharks and crocodiles and the third one has venomous snakes and scorpions. Time is running out and you have to choose, as not doing anything is not an option.
We always choose the best option
Our basic survival instinct always chooses life. In the above case, you do a quick mental analysis of your options and realise that the only way that would keep you alive is the smelly sewerage. So, you opt for it and are alive wading in smelly waters. Not a nice feeling, but you are alive.
As time goes by, you are grateful for being alive and then you forget the other alternatives that you had. You focus only on what is the present. In all probability, people around you may say, “Look at him/her swimming in that sewer.” But no one would know that this was the best option available for you to survive.
Thus, it is clear that we always choose the best option available us at any given time. We have to have faith in ourselves, that even the worse situations now, were the right choices at a particular time. And the fact that we acknowledge this is all that matters.
Accepting our choices is the first step in moving on. And regrets, in most instances, are an absolute waste of energy that take keep us from appreciating what we have.
Even a moment spent in negative emotions about the past is a waste. So take a deep breath, let it go and pat yourself on your back for coming this far.
Why regret may be good
A study by Colleen Saffrey at the University of Victoria and colleagues at the University of Illinois provides evidence that people actually have a high regard for regret.
In one study, subjects rated regret favourably in a survey, indicating that experiencing this emotion helped them make sense of life events and come up with a remedy for what went wrong.
In a second study, the researchers asked subjects to reflect on 11 negative emotions—such as fear, anger, anxiety, and shame—in addition to regret. The subjects rated how much they agreed with statements about the value of these emotions, which they thought helped them to act in the future or improved their relationships with others. Among all, regret was the most valued negative emotions studied.
Regret also has a social context. We learn not only from our own mistakes, but also from other people’s mistakes. We also learn about preferable outcomes by seeing our peers, colleagues, or neighbours make favourable or unfavourable choices.
The power of regret may explain why few of us are good at objectively appraising risks and benefits. Rather than looking forward to figure out what is in our best interests, we typically look backward. We reflect on what has and has not worked in the past—be it a life partner, career, financial investment, or even a medical treatment—we choose the option we are least likely to regret.Managing regret productively may thus be essential for our mental health. It helps improve the quality of life, and promotes a positive sense of well-being.
— Team CW
There are many kinds of regret, and along with the if-only thought, any kind of regret will only stop you from progressing and living a better life. Find out the different types of regret and how you can deal with it.