We all feel regret from time to time and it stinks. It may be something a simple as regretting having that delicious piece of cake, or more significant like an opportunity not taken or a relationship that ended poorly. It’s easy to get mired in regret, which we know, rationally, will not change anything, yet the advice of others to just forget about it doesn’t help. So how do we get out of that pit of despair? And more importantly, how do we create momentum going forward? I’ve got three suggestions.
Identify what you regret
This seems simple. “I regret having that delicious piece of cake.” Really? If it was delicious, do you really regret the cake? Likely not, but rather that you didn’t follow through with your plans to reduce sweets or ate too close to bedtime and it reduced your sleep quality.
What we regret often falls into three buckets: what you did, what you didn’t do, and how things turned out.
What we regret doing often signals a lack of alignment with our goals or, more importantly, our values. I may regret snapping at a colleague because it is not in alignment with the calm, kind person I want to be.
On the other hand, regret about not doing something may signal our aspirations. I might regret not having studied abroad for a year or turning down an opportunity. While there is always an element of “what might have been,” that is often linked to what we still may want to be.
Of course, there are some regrets that are driven by things turning out badly. Even there, the focus should be on our action or inaction, rather than obsessing about others. When we blame someone else (even they behaved horribly), we cede control of our narrative and our agency to someone else, which keeps us stuck in regret and recrimination rather than moving forward.
Ask future-focused questions
If the regret indicates an alignment issue, dig deeper into what the value or goal is that is important. Then take a look at your current activities. Are you currently showing up in congruence with the values you identified? Do you plan your daily activities and objectives to make progress on the goal you identified? If not, you may be setting the stage for more regret down the road.
If, on the other hand, you identified an aspiration that you chose not to seek, is it still important to you? If so, it’s an opportunity to pause and think about how you can move forward in that area. If it’s NOT still important, then there’s not that much to regret today.
If you’re in the bucket of not liking where you are or how things worked out, there may be a tendency to ask why this happened. The problem with that question is that not all of the reasons are within your control or knowledge. Who knows what’s in the minds of others? Some things in life – natural disasters, accidents, pandemics and the like – are simply beyond the control of anyone. So rather than asking why, something happened (which assumes that there is blame as well as perfect knowledge), think about how something happened and your role.
After you’ve checked in on your values, goals, and aspirations, it’s time to pivot to the future and ask what.
- What can I do differently if a similar situation arises?
- What would a good outcome look like and what can I do to increase that likelihood?
- What action can I take now to move towards my goals and aspirations?
- What are the relationships I need to support me?
Let it go
Once you’ve examined your regret, learned from it, and converted it to a future focus, it’s time to let regret go. It has served its purpose. Release the negative energy that it entails and focus that on the bright future ahead of you.