Feelings of Regret: They Help You Grow
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“Forgive and forget” is bad advice. Don’t get me wrong, forgiveness is always a wise choice. It’s the forget part of that adage that seems worrisome. While letting go of injurious events is desirable, simply forgetting them may be harmful to your personal growth.
Take a moment here to think about your regrets. You can focus on one situation if you’d like. Regret comes in two forms: you either wish you had done something or wish you hadn’t. What form does your regret take? Now think about why you feel regretful. Is it because of embarrassment, anger, or guilt? Perhaps you feel sad about the loss of a relationship over some poorly chosen words or actions. Perhaps you feel sad, because you never told someone how you truly felt before they left your life, for good. Regardless of the emotions attached to your regret, one factor is certain: you’ve learned what not to do next time.
What is Regret and Why is it Important?
Regret is an innate mechanism in the brain that allows us to identify the consequences of action or inaction. While it seems complex, it is really rather primitive. Our brains feel guilt, shame, fury, and other negative emotions, because our brains don’t want us to repeat those actions. Call it conscience, if you will, and while it is basic and typically happens subconsciously (people who exhibit psychopathic behaviors may not feel regret), it is the afterthought that makes humans truly remarkable.
The emotions we feel clue us in that something is wrong. They may be instantaneous or develop as we realize our lives have gone awry, at some point. But through the pain, we begin to understand consequence, and our memories allow us to make note of the consequences attached to certain behaviors. Interestingly enough, before the age of seven, children do not seem to feel regret. This information may clue us into the progression of development; most of the poor choices we make are in adolescence and early 20s. It isn’t until cause and effect occur, repeatedly, that we begin to experience personal growth. It is a learned process, which is why regret is so important.
The Downside of Regret
While our brain experiences the emotions attached to regret so easily, it is less equipped to move on. The human brain is constantly trying to make sense of its environment. A part of this task is to simulate alternative outcomes. Whether our mistake stems from what we did or didn’t do, the brain attempts to rectify the situation by imagining a different outcome through a different course of action. In this attempt, we can begin to obsess over the details of our regret. We fixate on events that are now out of our control, and instead of focusing on the path to true transformation, we allow the regret to intensify, like an unplucked weed, preventing personal growth.
Kellogg School of Management marketing professor Neal Roese studies decision-making and the emotional ties associated with the results. He and his colleagues consistently analyze participants’ most common regrets. The aspects of life that people regret the most are education, romance, parenting, and career. What Roese and his colleagues discovered was that Americans, on average, experience regret more often. Their discovery indicates that the more opportunity afforded to an individual, the more the variety of choices preoccupy their thoughts. This is evident by the study’s results; people in the United States have many educational and career opportunities. Even romantic partnerships and parenting decisions are mostly up to us (barring societal acceptance).
In our highly competitive, wealth-driven society, we can become vulnerable to the downside of regret—developing symptoms of depression and anxiety. With constant worry, people could have trouble with sleep, focus, and even physical illness. But Roese warns that while we shouldn’t let regret run our lives, we should recognize its potential to steer us in the right direction.
How to Take Control of Your Regret
The goal of remembering regrets is to learn from disappointment in ourselves. While we shouldn’t dwell on the results of our actions or inactions, we can achieve personal growth by moving beyond our disappointment.
Step 1: Put your regret in context.
Use others as an example of how your situation is not that dire. It sounds bad, but if you can realize that your regret about not receiving a college degree is less severe than someone else’s inability because of a traumatic brain injury, it may put things into perspective for you. Additionally, this type of knowledge should make you feel fortunate to be able to obtain a degree, which means, you probably should.
It is always important to recognize how many aspects of your life would be different if you took another path. What if you told that special someone you loved them? What if you took that other job, or didn’t move from your hometown? It’s easy to wish you would have done something differently, but take a good look at your current situation. What do you have to be grateful for? How has one decision led you to another option that you are happy about? It is all connected.
Step 2: Take action on your inaction.
As stated before, if you are capable of completing a task, such as obtaining a different education, changing careers, or making atonement for a wrong, do so. It is never too late. Telling someone sorry is a good start, which leads to the next step.
Step 3: Accept your faults.
Regrets stem from your actions, which means you did something you shouldn’t have. You need to own that. There is no other way for personal growth to occur if you cannot admit that you made a mistake. After personal acceptance, it’s time to acknowledge your shortcomings to others. Apologize for past injuries, make a commitment to change your ways (this is especially important in parenting and marriage), and verbally share your experiences with others. Your regrets could serve as valuable lessons to others.
Step 4: Let go or get help.
Some situations have emotions attached to them that are easy to release. For instance, if you get into a car accident and someone is injured, it is quite possible that nothing could have been done (in your power at least) to change that outcome. Emotions are hard to work through, but if you realize nothing could have been done differently or you are glad that your life turned out the way it did, then begin to let it go.
If you notice that your anxiety, sadness, guilt, or other emotions become crippling, then it may be necessary to seek professional assistance. Cognitive behavioral therapy, which helps people modify their actions, is a leading therapy for letting go and moving on from past injuries. Journaling, talk therapy, group counseling, and other tools are available to help you begin to forgive yourself.
- Melissa Lavery, M.S.
Foltz-Gray, D. (2012, March 14). How to Overcome Life Regrets and Move On - Dealing With Regret - AARP. Retrieved February 27, 2015, from http://www.aarp.org/health/healthy-living/info-03-2012/how-to-overcome-regrets-protect-health.1.html
Gammon, K. (2010, May 1). Learning to Use Regret. Retrieved February 27, 2015, from http://insight.kellogg.northwestern.edu/article/learning_to_use_regret
Kashdan, T. (2010, August 19). 5 Key Things We've Learned About Regret. Retrieved February 27, 2015, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/curious/201008/5-key-things-weve-learned-about-regret?utm_source=FacebookPost&utm_medium=FBPost&utm_campaign=FBPost
Seda, E. (2013, June 11). Overcoming Deep Regret & Shame For Past Mistakes - A Life on Your Terms. Retrieved February 27, 2015, from http://www.alifeonyourterms.com/overcoming-deep-regret-shame-for-past-mistakes/