We can waste a lot of mental energy stuck in regret – ruminating on a bad decision or mistake we made.
I know this firsthand, and I see it in my clients.
We feel bad about something we did or said, and we can’t let it go.
As I shared in a prior blog post (link below), I was stuck in regret for a long time about a parenting mistake I made, and each time I remembered, I felt anger, stress and sadness.
When we get stuck in regret, it’s almost as if we falsely believe the rumination will somehow change what happened – or worse, that we deserve to feel the pain of it.
Getting stuck in regret
Merriam-Webster defines regret as “sorrow aroused by circumstances beyond one’s control or power to repair.”
While something may have initially been within our power – like a decision we made – the key element here is that we can no longer control or change it.
Since we can’t change it, what do we do instead?
We replay it in our minds, think of what we should have said or done differently, and we just…feel…bad.
Regret, in the short-term, helps us recognize mistakes and learn from them. But long-term regret is not helpful.
We can regret for days, weeks, months or even years, replaying a narrative like a broken record and deepening our sadness.
The toll of regret
Regret requires cognitive and emotional energy.
Not surprisingly, studies show that regret increases activity in an area of the brain associated with decision-making, value and risk assessment, and motivation (the orbitofrontal cortex).
Regret makes the brain work a little harder trying to sort the mistake out. Except it can’t be sorted out, because it already happened.
Regret is also associated with difficult emotions like sorrow, remorse and helplessness as well as increased stress and a depressed immune system.
Regret is cognitively, emotionally and physically exhausting, and yet changes nothing.
And each time we replay the story and feel badly about it, we deepen the neural pathways and make it more habitual.
5 steps for moving past regret
Fortunately, because of neuroplasticity, we have the power to change our neural patterns and move past even long-standing regret.
I have done this, and I help clients do it too.
Imagine what we could accomplish if we stopped wasting cognitive and emotional energy on regret!
Here are 5 steps to get you started:
#1) Acknowledge and allow. While it may be tempting to dismiss or suppress the memory and emotion of the mistake, experts agree that we can’t really let go of something unless we first acknowledge it. As I like to say: we can’t change what we don’t first allow. The trick here is not to return to the narrative of judgment, self-blame or shame, but to simply acknowledge what happened and allow yourself to feel whatever emotions arise with that – without judgment. If it feels uncomfortable, you’re on the right track.
#2) Name the feelings. Once you allow the uncomfortable feelings, label them. Be as specific as you can, beyond feeling bad. Get curious. There may be anger, fear, helplessness, embarrassment, shame, unworthiness. Research shows that naming these emotions can help calm the amygdala (home of the brain’s stress response) and activate parts of the prefrontal cortex associated with emotional regulation.
#3) Understand the context. Consider the context of the situation in which you made the mistake or bad decision. Often with regret, we get so attached to a certain perspective that we fail to take in factors such as our internal or external resources at the time. What was happening in our life or work at the time? How were we feeling? What were others doing/not doing? How much time did we have to decide or act? What information did we have to work with? What support did we have?
This step was an important part for me to move past long-term regret related to a parenting situation. I blamed myself for a couple of bad decisions until I really considered what was happening in my brain at a time of grief and high stress. (For more on this and the neuroscience behind it, see the full post “Why we sometimes make a bad decision.”) In the context of the situation, my capacity for quick and well-reasoned decision-making was extremely low – which leads us to #4 below.
4) Consider control. Given your answers to #3, what was actually in your control? What was not? Finally, what is within your control today? Here’s where we need to get really clear on what we can currently do about the situation. If there’s room to repair some damage, great. But if not – and this is often the case – it’s time to let it go or risk wasting more of your energy. #5 can help with this.
5) What’s the lesson? What would you do differently today? Here’s where you can create new neural pathways for a future plan. Knowing what you know now, what would you do next time? There’s always a learning opportunity, and getting clear on what that is helps the brain close the loop on the past story, map out a course correction, and feel ready to move forward.
Here’s a separate bonus step. (I don’t practice this one, but you might like it.) Research shows that comparing yourself to someone who is worse off than you can help you release regret. Researchers call this a “downward social comparison.” Maybe this person made a bigger mistake, or had more dire consequences. But one thing’s for sure, we can always find someone worse off.
What’s your regret story? How long have you held onto it? What do you feel when you think of this past mistake?
Try some or all of these steps, and share your story here. Or contact me privately if you’d like some support in changing the story.
Photo by Elisa Ventur on Unsplash