I know this doesn’t sound fun, but I want you to think about something you regret. Maybe it’s a harsh comment you made to your spouse. Maybe it’s a long-lost friendship you think you ruined. Maybe it’s something even darker….
Likely, thinking about your regrets has brought up feelings of sadness or anxiety for you. So let’s unpack what regret truly means, and how to deal with it.
When we talk about regret we call it a feeling. But really we are talking about thoughts about the past that involve wishing our past behavior were different. Those thoughts usually lead to feelings of sadness or anxiety, depending on the person.
Fundamentally, regret is a thought about how you should have been or acted differently in the past. Thinking about the past and wishing things had happened differently is so embedded in our experience of being human that we don’t really question it…but maybe we should!
After all, the past is over. What happened yesterday is as over as ancient Rome. So why are we so obsessed with our behavior last week, when most of us don’t obsess over Caesar’s assassination on a daily basis (unless we’re classicists)?
The answer, fundamentally, comes down to how our brains are wired. Our brains aren’t actually good at understanding the difference between past, present, and future. Why? Because our experience of all those things exists only in our mind.
The past exists as we’re thinking about it, the present exists as we’re thinking about it, and the future exists as we’re thinking about it.
I say this not to propel you into an existential crisis, but to remind you that we create our experience of life with our brains, in our minds.
Those sleepless nights spent obsessing over a professional decision you made 10 years ago? Those dark hours spent mourning that you didn’t reconcile with your father before he passed away?
They’re all occurring because you want to change how you feel about the past NOW, in the present.
But remember, circumstances don’t cause your feelings – your thoughts cause your feelings.
Ready to have your mind blown?
This means the past doesn’t need to change for you to feel better. Only your thoughts about the past need to change.
If you change the way you think today about what happened in the past, you will feel better today. The past doesn’t have to change at all.
I want to teach you how to change the thoughts that lead to regret, but first, let’s unpack the three primary elements of regret:
- You think you caused a circumstance you didn’t like.
If you cheat on your partner and they break up with you, maybe you’re sad about being alone and think that if you’d acted differently, you’d still be together. You regret cheating because you think it caused a circumstance you don’t like.
- You’re thinking negative thoughts now about yourself based on the past.
Again, let’s say you cheat on your partner and they break up with you. You have lots of thoughts about what a bad person you are for doing that, so you regret the action because you think the action is responsible for your feelings about yourself. If you could change the action, you think you’d feel ok about yourself now.
- You think life would be better now if the past were different.
You think, if the past hadn’t happened, either the material conditions of your life would be different (such as where you live, where you work, who your friends are, etc.), or your mental conditions would be better (you wouldn’t be criticizing yourself for past actions).
Now, what can you do about those thoughts?
- First, recognize your actions were only one element of what went down.I recently coached a client who cheated on her partner, and when she told her partner, they broke up with her. She was consumed with regret about having “caused” the breakup, but the truth is, her partner was also part of the breakup. They chose not to forgive her. Both she and her partner took action and a breakup resulted from those actions, but she didn’t singlehandedly cause the breakup. This isn’t about assigning blame, it’s about recognizing that you only control yourself.
- Second, look at your thoughts about yourself in light of the past action you regret.Usually when you’re dealing with regret, there’s a heavy element of self-judgment and shame built in. You believe you were a bad person or acted badly in the past – or that you’re a bad person now because of your past. But the circumstances of the past don’t determine your thoughts about yourself now. You can choose to think kinder thoughts about yourself.In the past, you had thoughts, feelings, and actions, just like now. If you did something you regret, why did you do it? Because you had a certain feeling caused by a certain thought – not because you’re a bad or selfish person.When you look at it that way, you can take the moral judgment out of the equation, understand why you acted as you did, and cultivate compassion for yourself.
- Finally, let’s deal with the assumption that your life would be better now if the past had been different.
Sometimes, you think if you’d acted differently, you’d have something you don’t have – a person in your life, a better career, whatever. Or you think you’d no longer have something you don’t want, like you’d no longer be at a job you wish you’d left in the past.Sometimes you just think your life would be better if you weren’t feeling so regretful all the time.Either way, the solution is the same: changing your thoughts.You may be single now, or not be in touch with a friend you love, or not have children, or be in one career rather than another – but none of those things cause your feelings.
Whatever resulted from the words or actions you regret is a neutral circumstance.
Your current thoughts about your life are what create your feelings about it, full stop.
If you want to feel free of past regrets, you have to take responsibility for your life now. You have to choose your thoughts and feelings on purpose. There’s nothing wrong with your life other than your thoughts about it. You don’t need to change the past to love the life you have now, you just have to change your thoughts.