If only… Strategies to deal with regret
Do you look back on your life and wonder what if you had made a different decision at a critical point? Research shows that we tend to regret more the decisions where we did not act, rather than the decisions where we did something but went wrong. Regret over inaction weighs more as we imagine possible alternative options. However, we miss the fact that we could have had different regrets. This thinking pattern can be explained by the “Zeigarnik effect” – when things are left unfinished. We continue to think about them trying to find a solution or closure (Roese, 2005).
Regret, the feeling we get when looking back on past events wishing that we could have made a different choice can leave us with a sense of missed opportunities. We imagine how things could have been better for us now if we had made another decision back then: the course we did not study, the relationship we did not pursue or let go of too soon, not taking a job in another city, or not saying good-bye to a loved one when we had a chance.
Researchers describe this thinking pattern as counterfactual thinking. It is when we have thoughts about alternative scenarios – imagining how things could have been. We engage in upward counterfactual thinking, that is, imagining how things could have been if we had made better choices (Roese, 2005).
Often, when comparing ourselves with a better option, we feel worse because if we are not happy with how things are at present, we think it is our fault as we could have made a different choice. We fantasise about the other options that could have been better, but there is no way of knowing as it is not possible to go back. Different choices would likely have brought us other regrets. Also, we miss the opportunity to have a sense of achievement as regret prevents us from focusing on what we have done well.
Research indicates that we are more likely to be upset in the short term by the actions we took and went wrong. We start to imagine if only we had done something different and how that might have turned out. However, in the longer term, the things that we regret the most are those where we failed to take action (Gilovich & Medvec, 1995).
It can lead to excessive rumination, focusing on how things are worse now because of our choices. It can lead to loss of confidence, agitation, self-criticism and exacerbate underlying conditions such as anxiety and depression.
It is easy to look back and focus on all the things we think we could have done better. Sometimes we hold on to regrets, and self-criticism can set in, preventing us from benefiting from our self-reflection. Practising self-compassion can help manage these feelings as we acknowledge that we are human and can make mistakes.
Sometimes, we feel guilty because we may have inadvertently hurt someone due to our decisions or actions. If so, recognising this feeling will enable us to acknowledge that we have made a mistake and apologise. Regret can help us to make amends and nurture our relationships.
We may need to grieve the loss of the opportunities lost. However, reminding ourselves that at the time, we did not know how things would turn out. When making a decision, we have to act with the information we have available. The outcome can be different to what we expected, we may be disappointed, but it does not mean that we made the wrong decision.
We learn from our experiences, and as we obtain new information, we review previous decision considering what we know now. We can decide if we can make adjustments or changes. If it is not possible to make changes, we can adjust our attitude by accepting that the circumstances were different back then. Things change over time, and we do too.
We can use the feeling of regret as a signal so we can learn from the experience. We can ask ourselves: “What were the obstacles in the situation? What were the criteria we were using to evaluate what was important? Have our priorities changed since then? Where we afraid of something? What were the risks? Is there any corrective action we can take now? If not, what lessons can we draw from the experience? What do we want to do differently in the future?
Regret can have benefits if we focus on the situations as learning opportunities. We can reframe the situation and imagine alternative scenarios and focus on how things could have been worse. Researchers refer to this pattern of thinking as downward counterfactuals (Roese, 2005). It can help us to gain perspective and to focus on what we can do now to change things, and if not, to remember the insights we learn to apply them in the future.
Strategies to move forwards
Reflecting on regret: Noticing the feelings we experience as information important to us is at stake. What is it that we regret? Were there negative consequences that caused us problems, or was it something we wish we had not said or done that inadvertently hurt someone we care about?
Notice that we are asking “what?”” and not “why?” this happened. Asking “What?” leads to understanding what is important to us to identify the learning from experience (Eurich, 2018).
Focus on the insights: When things do not work out as we hoped can trigger feelings of disappointment, and we may be upset with ourselves for our choices. Notice the feelings and view them as part of the human experience. Then, instead of launching into self-criticism and deciding “I will never do that again”, limiting our options and keeping us focused on the negatives, we can redirect our focus to what we want to do differently next time.
Nurturing a growth mindset: when feeling regret, we might avoid similar situations or feel nervous about trying new things. Sometimes our decisions can lead to disappointing results, but it does not mean that we will never have a positive outcome. We can restore our confidence by focusing on our capacity to learn from our experiences.
Changing perspective: we can soon get into a negative loop with our thoughts about what we should have done or criticising ourselves because we feel we made the wrong decision. Redirecting our attention from a “should” statement to “I would have preferred to have done X“, will create distance from self-criticism, so we can start to focus on what we could do differently next time.
Focusing on what is meaningful: when dealing with regret, our attention is on what we think is wrong and on our feelings of disappointment, frustration or hurt because of how things have turned out. But this keeps us stuck in the past. To move forward, we need to redirect our attention to what is meaningful and what matters right now.
Research shows that being grateful for things that we value in our lives improve our well-being— noticing each day something that we value and could easily take for granted. For example, having a conversation with someone we care about or having a warm cup of tea when it is cold outside.
Being our best friend: adopting a compassionate attitude, like listening to our best friend, can help to come to terms with what happened. It is also helpful to discuss the situation with a person we trust to get another perspective.
Practice self-compassion: adopting a non-judgmental attitude, recognising that we can make mistakes and learn from them. It enables us to process our thoughts and feelings.
Self-care: It is easy to forget to look after ourselves when feeling unhappy about our decisions. However, it is essential to maintain healthy habits to have the energy to deal with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings. Remembering that this is part of the human experience and what counts is to learn from the experience and focus on what we can do differently to move forwards.
Eurich, T. (2018) Insight: How to succeed at seeing yourself clearly. London: Pan Books.
Gilovich, T. & Medvec, V.H.(1995) The experience of regret: What, when, and why. Psychological review, Vol 102 (2), 379-395. American
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Harris, R. (2011) The confidence gap. From fear to freedom. London: Constable & Robinson, Ltd.
Henderson, L. (2010) The compassionate-mind guide to building social confidence. California: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.
Roese, N. (2005) If only. How to turn regret into opportunity. New York: Broadway Books.