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How to Release Yourself From Regrets

5 ways to avoid getting mired in could've, should've, would've thinking


Do you spend too much time wondering what could have been, if only you’d made other choices or taken another path earlier in life? Many of us have lingering regrets about ways that we could have lived our lives differently. Research shows that as we get older, our regrets tend to focus on missed opportunities: Jobs we didn’t take, relationships that might have worked out if we’d been more attentive or understanding, experiences we were too timid to try.

“When people look back at their lives, it is often things they did not do that stand out in their regrets,” says regrets researcher Marcel Zeelenberg, professor of social psychology at Tilburg University in the Netherlands.

“Regrets over inaction often take some time to develop. One may regret not buying certain stocks that have gone up in time and thus missed the opportunity to become richer, but this regret only comes into existence after having learned about the stock going up, not directly after not buying them. Also, the not buying them is often not a very conscious thing. The things we did not do, we often did not do for many years,” he explains.

Short-term vs. Long-term Regret

Some research shows that there are benefits to experiencing short-term regret, because it may help you solidify your opinions and emotions, which may help you choose another option the next time you need to make a similar decision.

“Short-term regret is a great motivator to do it differently next time,” says Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, author of Thresholds: How to Thrive Through Life’s Transitions To Live Fearlessly and Regret-Free and chief innovation officer for American Jewish University in Los Angeles. “When we say something nasty to another human being and right away, we feel, ‘This is not good,’ it’s a motivator to change our behavior.”

If you can change opinions about situations which you regret, you may be able to detach from those negative feelings.

But after time passes, being saddled with long-term feelings of regret may be harmful to your mental and physical health, according to research. If you’re 55 and still kicking yourself for a bad career move at 25, there’s no going back to change things, and your negative self-talk may lower your quality of life.

“Ruminating over regrets is precisely why they are detrimental for older people and helpful for younger people, as typically, younger people have more opportunities to learn from their mistakes,” Zeelenberg says. “Why it is hard to let go of regrets when we are older is still a puzzle. I think that the emotional system simply continues to work the same when we get older, and the regrets keep nagging, but we have less opportunity to do something with it. So the same thing that is functional and leads to improvement in younger age leads to frustration and reduced well-being in older age.”

Change Your Reactions to Regret: 5 Strategies

It’s possible to consciously change the way you react to feelings of regret, which may help you lead a happier existence. Try these five strategies:

1. Live life looking forward

When you worry that your best years are behind you, you may focus on regrets because you pause more to take stock of your life. Instead, realize that the present and future are still yours for the taking.

“I help people see this is not the end, even though it feels like a shorter time in front of you,” Hirsch says. “[But you need] to realize that this moment is about living forward and that we can’t live in reverse.”

2. Be forgiving of yourself

We’re often more understanding of friends than we are of ourselves. If your friend told you about a situation from her past that she regretted, you’d probably advise her to let go of the negative feelings. Yet many people don’t tell this to themselves.

“To reduce feelings of regret and associated problems with mental and physical health, it can be useful to recognize what you could not control, which should reduce the self-blame. Learn to forgive yourself for what you could control [and] focus on the positives in the present and the future, instead of dwelling on things that have happened in the past and can no longer be changed,” says regrets researcher Wändi Bruine de Bruin,  professor of behavioral decision-making at Leeds University Business School in England.

3. Take things into perspective

Some people regret things as older adults that weren’t possible to achieve when they were younger. Recognizing that you had limitations and that certain goals simply weren’t attainable may help you let go of certain regrets.

“People that now regret that they did not have a certain education when they were young often forget that this was not a real option when they were young,” Zeelenberg says. “For example, they did not have the money or time back then, or they needed to have a job to earn a living. [But] thinking about all the factors that played a role back then may make the current regrets less intense.”

4. View the past differently

If you can change your opinions about situations which you regret, you may be able to detach from those negative feelings.

“Most of us, in our minds, are very binary, black-and-white: ‘The marriage was terrible; the kids are great,’” Hirsch says. “We live much more gray. The marriage wasn’t terrible 24/7 every single minute of every single day… I tell people to remove labels as much as possible. It just is. The marriage was. It was for a certain amount of time. When I work with people, I say, ‘Just the facts. Let the feelings separate from the facts.’”

5. Seek professional help

Sometimes, it can be difficult to let go of regrets without help from a counselor or therapist.

“If people find this hard to do on their own, they might seek cognitive behavioral therapy, which is designed to help reduce unproductive thoughts that do nothing for us other than make us feel bad,” Bruine de Bruin says. ‘[It can] encourage people to recognize their unproductive thoughts and systematically question them.”

By Lisa Fields
Lisa Fields is a writer who covers psychology and health matters as they relate to the workplace. She publishes frequently in WebMD and Reader’s Digest.

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