Quick Summary: Regret is often viewed as something to be avoided, but regret is a part of being human. Rather than running from it, we can allow our regrets to become a force for growth and empathy in our lives.
Regret is a complex and often distressing emotion that arises when we feel remorse or sorrow over past actions, decisions, or missed opportunities. It is a feeling of disappointment, dissatisfaction, or a sense of having made a mistake. Regret manifests in various ways, such as wishing we had done something differently, longing for a different outcome, or feeling a sense of loss for what could have been.
Usually, regret stems from a perceived discrepancy between our current reality and an alternative, a more desirable outcome that we believe could have occurred if we had acted differently. It often involves reflecting on past choices and imagining how things might have been better if we had made different decisions or behaved differently. It can lead to feelings of sadness, guilt, shame, or self-blame. It can lead us to ruminate on the past, where we dwell on prior events or choices, amplifying negative emotions and inhibiting our ability to move forward.
While regret can be an uncomfortable and unproductive space, there are several ways to look at regret; the perspective we choose can significantly impact how it impacts us. I am not a big fan of ignoring regret; the feeling offers a useful window into our psyche and emotions can be a powerful transformational tool in our lives and a useful avenue for growth.
Regret might be more helpfully viewed as a learning opportunity. It often highlights areas where we feel we could have made better choices or behaved differently. By viewing regret as a teacher, we can extract lessons from our past actions and use them to make wiser decisions in the future. Particularly when we have learned and grown from our past mistakes, regret often becomes a needed lesson, not an anchor. This is particularly true when we are able to practice self-compassion and recognize that making mistakes is a normal part of being human.
In this vein, regret can become a catalyst for growth. It can push us to examine our values, priorities, and behaviors. Embracing regret as an opportunity for growth can help us to change patterns, develop new skills, or adopt healthier habits. Reflecting on regret can lead us to realize when our actions or decisions are incongruent with our values– and so move us to behave more consistently with our values. It can help us gain clarity about what matters. This can be useful in aligning our future choices with our values and living a more authentic and fulfilling life.
Regret can serve as a powerful motivator to make positive changes. For example, if we regret how we have behaved in a relationship, regret might spur us to do better, or to act in the present repair relationships, or treat future relationships differently. In this context, regret is akin to failure, and as Jedi Master Yoda said, “The greatest teacher, failure is.” Perhaps regret is part of the mechanism that allows us to transform failure into wisdom.
Part of regret is the feeling of if only… then things would be better. While this might be true, this feeling of loss for what might have been ignores the fact that in every opportunity we pursue, we must, by definition, not pursue other ones. Despite this, we cling to the fantasy somehow, we never have to say no to opportunity, that everything is possible. When we pine for what could have been, we cannot appreciate what is. When we find ourselves dwelling in regret and sadness about what could have been, we rob ourselves of the opportunity to appreciate and be grateful for what actually is. In this context, regret can help us appreciate the present moment, and appreciate what we do have in our life. It can remind us of the importance of making the most of the present moment and valuing the relationships and opportunities we do have. When we focus on the sadness of loss, on what might have been, we are simultaneously (and by definition) not focusing on what is or what was. We are robbing ourselves of the opportunity to practice gratitude.
Regret reminds us that we are imperfect beings who make mistakes. It’s an inherent part of the human experience. By accepting regret as a natural aspect of life, we can cultivate self-compassion, forgive ourselves, and let go of the burden of perfectionism.
Another approach to decision regret is to take a moment to consider the decision, knowing what we knew at the time the decision was made. Using that rubric, there are really two options: one, that we knew enough at the time to make a different decision. In that case, regret can help us refine our decision-making process so that we become more familiar with ourselves, and make better decisions in the future. The second possibility is that we made the right decision given what we knew at the time. In that case, we can have an easier time letting go of regret.
Lastly, recognize that regret is a universal human experience. We can use this to deepen our empathy and compassion. Regret can foster understanding and encourage us to treat others with kindness and forgiveness. Viewing regret from a compassionate lens can lead to greater empathy and stronger connections with those around you. Perhaps most importantly, this empathy and compassion starts with ourselves, with giving ourselves the grace to recognize that we are not perfect.
Ultimately, the way we choose to look at regret will decide how it impacts us. We can choose to view it as a negative burden or as a catalyst for growth and positive change, as a weight we carry, or as an opportunity to connect with each other. Don’t ignore or minimize regret– embrace it, and let it become the foundation for growth and empathy.