How to Cope With Regret

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Life is full of choices and paths not taken, so it isn’t surprising that people sometimes feel regret over both the decisions they made and the ones they didn’t.

Regret can be an incredibly painful emotion. While rooted in feelings of contrition, disappointment, guilt, or remorse for things that have happened in the past, such feelings can have a powerful influence over your life in the here-and-now. The problem is that when you are feeling regret over past choices or past mistakes, you might sometimes miss out on the joys of the present moment.

Learn more about the power of regret, what causes it, and what you can do to cope.

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What Is Regret?

Regret is defined as an aversive emotion focused on the belief that some event from the past could have been changed in order to produce a more desirable outcome.

It is a type of counterfactual thinking, which involves imagining the ways your life might have gone differently. Sometimes counterfactual thinking might mean appreciating your good luck at avoiding disaster, but at other times it focuses on being disappointed or regretful.

Characteristics of Regret

  • It focuses on the past
  • It is a negative, aversive emotion
  • It focuses on aspects of the self
  • It leads to upward comparisons 
  • It often involves self-blame

The reason why regret feels so awful is because, by its nature, it implies that there is something you could have done, some choice you could have made, or some action you might have taken that would have made something good happen or avoided something terrible.

Regret isn't just wishing events had gone differently; it also involves an inherent aspect of self-blame and even guilt.  

Regret is a difficult thing to feel, but some experts suggest it can also have a positive impact if you cope with it well and allow it to help you make better choices going forward.

"No regrets" has become a popular mantra for many, signifying the idea that regret is a waste of time and energy. It's a worldview repeated in popular culture and touted by everyone from social media influencers to celebrities to self-help gurus.

And, according to psychologist Daniel Pink, author of "The Power of Regret," it is 100% wrong. He suggests that regret is not only perfectly normal, it can even be healthy. According to Pink, regret can act as a source of valuable information. When utilized well, it can guide, motivate, and inspire you to make better choices in the future.

Tips for Coping With Regret

While you can’t avoid regret, there are things that you can do to minimize these feelings. Or take the negativity out of these feelings and turn your regrets into opportunities for growth and change. 

Regret is most often characterized as a negative emotion, but it can serve an important function and even act as a positive force in your life at times. For example, regret can be motivating. It can drive you to overcome past mistakes or take action to correct them

Research has also found that both experienced regret and anticipated regret can influence the decisions that you make in the future. Efforts to avoid future regrets can help you make better decisions.

Practice Self-Acceptance

Acknowledging and accepting what you are feeling is essential. When you accept yourself and what you are feeling, you are able to recognize that your value isn't defined by your mistakes or failures.

Accepting yourself and your feelings does not mean you don't want to change things or do better. It just means that you are able to recognize that you are always learning, changing, and growing. 

Recap

Remind yourself that the events of the past don't determine your future, and you are capable of making better choices in the future.

Forgive Yourself

Because regret involves a component of guilt and self-recrimination, finding ways to forgive yourself can help relieve some of the negative feelings associated with regret. Forgiving yourself involves making a deliberate choice to let go of the anger, resentment, or disappointment you feel about yourself.

Accepting your mistakes is one part of this process, but forgiveness also requires you to practice self-compassion. Rather than punishing yourself for mistakes, treat yourself with the same kindness and forgiveness that you would show a loved one.

You can do this by taking responsibility for what happened, expressing remorse for your errors, and taking action to make amends. You might not be able to change the past, but taking steps to do better in the future can help you forgive yourself and move forward instead of looking back.

Apologize for Mistakes

In addition to forgiving yourself, you may find it helpful to apologize to other people who may have also been affected. This can be particularly important if your regrets are centered on conflicts in relationships or other problems that have caused emotional distress and pain.

A sincere apology can let the other person know that you feel remorse about what happened and that you empathize with their feelings.

Take Action

One way to help cope with feelings of regret is to use those experiences to fuel future action. Consider what you might have changed and done differently, but instead of ruminating over what cannot be changed, reframe it as a learning opportunity that will allow you to make better choices in the future. 

In reality, you may not have been capable of making a "better" choice in the past simply because you didn't have the knowledge, experience, or foresight to predict the outcome. You made the choice you did based on what you knew then and the tools and information you had at your disposal.

Remind yourself that now that because of what you learned in the past, you now have the knowledge you need to make a better choice the next time you encounter a similar dilemma.

Recap

Remember that the events of the past don't determine your future, and you are capable of making better choices in the future.

Reframe It

Cognitive reframing is a strategy that can help you change your mindset and shift how you think about a situation. This approach can help you change your perspective, show compassion for yourself, and validate the emotions that you are feeling. It can also help you to see situations in a more positive way and overcome some of the cognitive distortions that often play a role in negative thinking.

As Pink notes in his book, the popular “no regrets’ philosophy isn’t so much about denying regret as it is about reframing it, or as he calls it, optimizing it. It is an acknowledgment that mistakes of the past have shaped who you are today. 

It is about reframing that regret and seeing it as a learning opportunity that helps build resilience and wisdom. It’s not that you wouldn’t change past decisions if you could–it’s about recognizing that those choices helped you learn and can help you make better decisions in the future.

Recap

Changing how you think about things that have happened in the past can also help you see regret in a different way. Instead of dwelling on negative feelings, you can see it as information that can guide you going forward.

What Causes Regret?

Anytime you are required to make a choice, there is an opportunity for regret. Did you make the right decision? Could things have turned out better? Would you be happier if you’d chosen differently? 

Such regrets sometimes center on the mundane (like whether you should have had the soup or the sandwich for lunch) to the life-altering (like whether you should have picked a different career or married a different partner). 

But what exactly causes people to regret some decisions and not others? According to researchers, opportunity itself plays a major role.

If the decision was out of your hands or largely influenced by outside forces, you're less likely to feel regretful about what happened. The reason for this is that processes such as cognitive dissonance and rationalization kick in to unconsciously minimize your personal responsibility for the outcome. 

For example, if you buy an item knowing you cannot return it, you're less likely to regret your purchase. According to researchers, people often unconsciously suppress or distort many of life's daily regrets without even realizing that it is happening. 

It is when you have more opportunities to change your mind, such as when you know you can return an item and pick something different, that you are more likely to wish you had chosen differently. Researchers refer to this as the opportunity principle, which suggests that more opportunity leads to more regrets.

Regret

Control and opportunity can play a role in whether or not you experience regret. When your ability to control the outcome is out of your hands, you may be less likely to regret your choice. But when many different options are present, you're more likely to regret your choice.

What Do People Regret Most?

In an older study published in 2008, researchers analyzed archival data to learn more about which areas were most likely to trigger feelings of regret. The results indicated that the six most common regrets were centered in the areas of education, career, romance, parenting, the self, and leisure. Beyond those top six, regrets then centered on the topics of finance, family, health, friends, spirituality, and community.

Interestingly, people are often more likely to regret inaction than action. For example, you're more likely to regret not choosing a certain career or not asking out someone you were interested in than to feel regret over the job and partner you did choose. This is because actions not taken are more subject to imagined outcomes. 

The consequences of the actions you did take are set in stone and readily apparent, but the ones you didn't take seem like boundless opportunities wasted. In other words, the perceived gains of the choices you didn’t make seem to outweigh the actual consequences of your actions, so the sting of regret for missed opportunities looms much larger in your mind.

Recap

Common regrets center on areas of life including education, career, and romance. In addition to regretting choices, people often regret not taking certain actions in the past.

Impact of Regret

Regret can take both a physical and emotional toll on your body and mind. Feelings of regret can often lead to physical symptoms such as muscle tension, sleep disturbances, changes in appetite, headaches, muscle pain, joint pain, and chronic stress

Studies have shown that persistent regret can increase your risk of problems with breathing issues, chest pain, joint pain, and poorer overall health.

Constantly ruminating on past regret can lead to symptoms such as anxiety, depression, poor self-esteem, helplessness, and feelings of hopelessness

Fear of future regret can also affect your behavior. Anticipated regret, or the belief that you will regret something in the future, can also play a role in risk-taking and health-related behaviors you engage in today.

When people think taking an action will lead to greater regret, they are less likely to engage in risky behavior. And when people think that not taking action will lead to feelings of regret (such as not taking care of their health or not engaging in regular exercise), they become more likely to take steps to avoid those anticipated regrets.

Studies have also found that concern about anticipated regret can influence the decisions that people make on the behalf of others. When people are worried that people are going to be disappointed or regretful, they are more likely to make more conservative choices.

Recap

Coping poorly with regret can lead to stress and emotional pain. It can also affect your future behavior. Anticipated regret often leads people to avoid risky behavior or engage in certain actions in order to avoid consequences that they might eventually regret.

A Word From Verywell

Regret is an aversive emotion that can be difficult to overcome. "Accept life, and you must accept regret," said the philosopher Henri-Frédéric Amiel. While regret is an unavoidable consequence of living life and making choices, you can find ways to cope with these feelings and even turn them into opportunities for growth.

Learning to accept your feelings, forgiving yourself for mistakes, and taking steps to learn from your experiences can help minimize many of the negative feelings associated with regret. While you may not truly be able to live life with "no regrets," you can change how you think about the things you might have changed and learn to focus on the present moment instead of ruminating over the past.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.