‘Regrets, I’ve had a few’ – that famous line in Frank Sinatra’s song, My Way, always makes me stop and wonder, “Who on earth only has a FEW regrets in their life?!!” It seems to me that regret is part of normal human experience, especially if we care about others or ever stop to reflect on our actions. But this flies in the face of popular opinion that a life well-lived is one lived with no regrets.
So, what is regret? And should we aim never to feel it? Or should we accept that it is going to show up from time to time?
Regret means to feel sad, repentant or disappointed over something that you have done, or failed to do. Regret usually plays out for people in ruminations (thinking and thinking) about past events and wishing they could be undone or have made different choices.
Regret can feel painful and come with a strong sense of sadness, and it often leaves people feeling helpless – because we can’t actually go back in time and reverse past actions. At best regret can feel like a constant irritant in the background – I once heard it described as like have a stone stuck in your shoe. At worst regret can lead to feelings of depression or stress.
Although hard to experience, regret can also be a helpful or motivating emotion at times. The pain of regret can inspire people to change or make amends, or simply apologise, which can be very healing at times.
So it is important to assess your regret and decide how it is impacting your life… If it is inspiring you to change in a positive direction and has helped you make better decisions in the present, then maybe spending time reflecting on your regretful situation is okay. But if it is dragging you down, fuelling depression or causing intrusive thoughts that trouble you throughout the day or night, it’s worth asking yourself, ‘Is hanging onto this regret adding any value to my life?’ If you can’t find an answer, there a good chance it’s not adding any value at all.
Of course, letting go of regret isn’t easy and it takes deliberate effort to disengage from the story of your past. Sometimes just noticing regret for what it is can help us take a step away from it. Rather than feeling the regret and jumping on the runaway train of thoughts that take you right back to the regretted situation as if it’s happening all over again, tell yourself, ‘Oh, here’s regret showing up again’. Just noticing it for what it is, a feeling rather than a reality, can help us hang onto the other aspects of ourselves that are okay, rather than allowing ourselves to be defined by the regretted event.
But self-compassion is really the key in this situation, which is something I’ve talked about before. So click the link below to my previous blog and consider the steps to self-compassion that can help you move on from unhelpful regrets.
Nicole Ferrar, Clinical Psychologist
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