If only… Strategies to deal with regret
Have you ever wondered what would have happened if you had made a different decision at a critical point in your life? Most of us experience regret when our decisions negatively impact us or others. We wonder about missed opportunities, the feeling behind fear of missing out (FOMO).
Research suggests that, in the short term, we are more likely to be upset by our actions that lead to negative outcomes. We start to imagine if only we had done something different and how that might have turned out. However, in the long-term, the things we regret the most are those where we failed to take action (Gilovich & Medvec, 1995).
Counterfactual thinking happens when we compare our decision to a worse or better scenario. An upward counterfactual comparison compares the current situation with a hypothetical positive outcome. When compared with a better scenario, we view our situation in a negative light and as a result we are likely to be critical of our choice and feel frustrated as a result (Roese, 2005).
It is easy to look back and focus on what we could have done better. However, we do not consider that the circumstances were different before we made the decision. When we evaluate things retrospectively, we evaluate based on our current knowledge.
We may think “I should have known”, but we need to remember that when we made the decision we did not have all the information and were in conditions of uncertainty (Leahy, 2022).
When comparing ourselves to a better option, we tend to feel worse because we believe it is our fault. We think that if we had made a different choice we would be in a better position. What we do not realise is that we are not very good at predicting how we will feel in the future.
We tend to overestimate how upset we will be if things do not turn out as we hope. Also, we do not think of the coping strategies we have available or see the opportunities that could open up (Leahy, 2022).
We also do not take into account that when we imagine alternative scenarios, we cannot see the possible outcomes that could cause disappointment or regret. Acknowledging that we did not know how things would turn out can help us process our feelings and thoughts.
Even though regret can be uncomfortable, we can benefit from it if we use it as a learning opportunity (Pink, 2022). Changing how we look at the situation can prevent us from dwelling on our mistakes, which can cause us to remain stuck in the past.
One option is to compare it to something that would have been worse. Researchers refer to this pattern of thinking as downward counterfactuals (Roese, 2005). The comparison can highlight what we are grateful for, redirecting our attention to what matters to us.
Reflecting on a situation helps us identify what cannot be changed and what can be improved. When we accept what we cannot change, we can focus on what we can change in the future.
We may be disappointed when the outcome differs from what we expected, but that does not mean that we made the wrong decision. Acknowledging that we did not know how things would turn out can help us process our feelings and thoughts.
In some situations, we have a hard time letting go of regrets, and we can be self-critical, resulting in tension and low mood. By acknowledging that we can make mistakes, self-compassion helps us to manage our emotions and allows us to focus on what we can do to improve (Leahy, 2022).
Feeling regret can help us make amends and nurture our relationships. When we cause someone upset unintentionally, we may feel guilty for it. We can restore a relationship by listening to how others feel and starting a conversation to understand further.
In summary, regret can be viewed as a signal to pay attention to something of importance. We can ask ourselves: “Have our priorities changed since then? Were 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?”
Strategies to move forward:
View regret as part of the human experience: We may find it difficult to manage our emotions at times. However, it is necessary to allow ourselves to experience the different emotions as they help us respond to life events.
These psychological states are temporary, even though it may not feel like it at the time. Notice the feelings you experience as a signal that something of importance is at stake. Take a moment to reflect on the situation and identify what is meaningful to you (Kashdan & Bissau-Diener, 2015).
Write things down: Research shows that expressing our thoughts and feelings in writing helps us organise and manage them. When we write, we gain some distance helping us to identify the issues, underlying assumptions, and as the tension eases, we can explore alternative viewpoints (Pennebaker, 1997).
Focus on the insights: We tend to get into negative loops focusing on what we should have done or criticising ourselves because we think we made the wrong choice. Instead, when we shift our focus from “should” statements to “I would have preferred to have done X“, it helps to create distance and reduce tension, making space to focus on what we could have done better to prepare and act differently next time.
Develop a growth mindset: Feeling regret might cause us to avoid similar situations or be afraid to try new things, limiting ourselves. By taking responsibility and learning from our mistakes, we can restore our confidence to persevere with our efforts (David, 2016).
In dealing with regret, we pay attention to what we think is wrong and how we feel disappointed or frustrated about how the situation turned out. However, this keeps us stuck in the past.
Reflecting on the experience and focusing on what is important right now will help us reconnect with our values and restore balance.
Taking time each day to notice something we value, or take for granted, can improve our mood and well-being. For example, having a conversation with someone we care about or having a warm cup of tea when it is cold outside.
Be your best friend: adopting a compassionate attitude, as we do with our best friend, enables us to come to terms with what happened. In addition, we can discuss it with someone we trust to gain a different perspective.
Self-compassion helps us gain perspective, and as we adopt a non-judgmental attitude it helps us process thoughts and feelings. As a result, we are better able to take responsibility and explore alternatives to solving problems (Gilbert & Choden, 2013).
It is easy to forget to take care of ourselves when we are unhappy with our decisions. So, reminding ourselves that self-care is essential to restore our energy levels, will help us navigate life’s ups and downs and grow through our experiences.
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Leahy, R. (2022) If only… Finding freedom from regret. New York: The Guildford Press.
Pennebaker, J. W. (1997) Writing about emotional experiences as a therapeutic process. Psychological science 8, No3, pp162-66.
Pink, D. (2022) The power of regret. How looking backward moves us forward. Edinburgh: Canongate.
Roese, N. (2005) If only. How to turn regret into opportunity. New York: Broadway Books.