How to Get Over Regrets and Move Forward

sad woman staring off into space

Maskot / Getty Images

When we feel disappointment and sorrow over what might have been or we wish we could change a choice we made in the past, we have regrets.

Often, a sense of shame accompanies our regrets. As these feelings are so uncomfortable, we avoid them at all costs. Or endless regret always stays with us. In the latter case, regret might haunt us and prevent us from progressing.

For example, maybe you worked too much while your children grew up. Consequently, they are not close to you, and you are filled with regret about it. You feel stuck because your kids and your grandchildren aren’t in touch. You blame your past actions.

Letting go of regret is important for your mental, emotional and physical health. Learn more about how regrets are harmful, the positive side of regrets, what our most intense regrets are, how to stop thinking about regrets, and ways to get over regrets and move forward.

How Regrets Are Harmful

Regrets can be harmful when we don’t want to accept them. For example, maybe you didn’t defend your friend who was accused of saying something derogatory. You didn’t speak up at the time to clear their name.

You push down those feelings of guilt and embarrassment because they are unpleasant. You end up feeling disappointed in yourself and don’t want to be reminded of the incident.

Or you remember the situation all too well, but don’t know how to overcome your regret. Imaging studies reveal that when we feel regret increased activity takes place in an area of the brain called the medial orbitofrontal cortex. Regret can have adverse effects on your mind.

Various psychological problems result from regret. Repetitive negative thought patterns and constant rumination can lead to stress, anxiety, and depression. This kind of mental and emotional pain also affects our bodies.

A recent studyshows another negative effect self-blame has on our bodies. Scientists found that inducing self-blame leads to increases in shame and guilt as well as increases in pro-inflammatory cytokine activity. According to Cleveland Clinic, inflammation is a symptom of many diseases like arthritis, cancer, and heart disease.

The Positive Side of Regrets

When we reflect on regrettable choices we made in the past, that’s a good thing. We grow from reflection and can learn from our missteps. Inspired to be better, we improve on our decision-making so we don’t repeat our mistakes.

Another positive aspect of regret is it can move you closer to being your best self. A study about people’s most enduring regrets was published in the journal Emotion where scientists looked at the connection between regret and an individual’s self-concept.

The results showed people acted more quickly to cope with regrets when they fell short in their duties and responsibilities than when they fell short in their goals and aspirations.  Therefore, regrets about their ideal selves were not resolved. People were more likely to regret not living up to being that ideal person and using their full potential.

What Are Our Most Intense Regrets?

In the first study to analyze key predictors in a single model, scientists looked at factors that affect the intensity of regret over a lifetime.

They found that people had a greater frequency of regrets about the lack of action (inaction) they took in their lives.

Yet, when these individuals reviewed their life paths, the intensity of regrets about inaction did not cause greater grief. People felt more intense regret about the actions they did take.

In looking at these actions, scientists discovered that the intensity of regret was greatest in this order:

  1. About decisions that broke participants’ own life rules
  2. About decisions related to social life domains rather than non-social domains
  3. About decisions that lacked justification

Press Play for Advice On Dealing With Regret

Hosted by Editor-in-Chief and therapist Amy Morin, LCSW, this episode of The Verywell Mind Podcast, featuring best-selling author Daniel Pink, shares how to cope with the feeling of regret. Click below to listen now.

Subscribe Now: Apple Podcasts / Spotify / Google Podcasts

How Can You Stop Thinking About Regrets?

It might seem like your brain is playing the regret song on repeat. You may compare yourself to friends and claim, “I’d be rich now if I went to a better college.” Or you play the what if game by saying, “If only I didn’t post that angry remark on Twitter, I wouldn’t have lost my job.”

Here are suggested ways to get out of your head and overcome that cycle of regret, self-blame, and shame:

Laurel Healy, LCSW, says, “If thoughts turn to self-blame and are serving no purpose, it’s important not to interrupt them. But we can train our minds to move on by distracting ourselves, meditating, talking to a friend and bringing ourselves into the present moment.”

Ways to Move Forward When You’re Feeling Regretful

If you're feeling regret, here are some steps you can take to move forward:

Have Empathy for Yourself

Let’s say you dropped out of college to work so you could buy a car more quickly. Now you believe getting that college degree would’ve been a better choice. Maybe you've been feeling regretful over this decision and feel like you're not on par with your peers.

Show yourself the same grace and empathy that would provide a loved one if they were feeling regretful about a past action.

Put yourself in your younger self's shoes. Ask yourself questions about your past choice. Did you do the best you could under the circumstances? Was your decision based on the maturity you had at the time? Answering these questions can help provide some insight into your decision.

Remind yourself that people can only make decisions based on the information they have at the time. If you did the best you could with the knowledge you had, try not to beat yourself up about your decision.

Cultivate Self-Compassion

Researchers at UC Berkeley conducted a studyabout self-compassion and regrets. Those participants who viewed their regrets with self-compassion felt they learned from their mistakes. With a positive adjustment, they were more motivated to improve themselves than the other groups.

In the study, researchers invited adults to write about their biggest regrets with kindness and self-compassion. Other participants were instructed to journal about their regrets and focus on their positive qualities as they related to self-esteem. The control group wrote about a hobby they enjoyed participating in.

Those participants who viewed their regrets with self-compassion felt they learned from their mistakes and were more motivated to improve themselves than the other two groups.

Forgive Yourself

You’re not letting yourself off the hook if you forgive yourself and let go of regret. Self-forgiveness involves separating your far-from-perfect actions from who you are as a person.

By forgiving yourself, you are recognizing that you are a worthy person and that we all err because we’re human.

Steps you can take to cultivate self-forgiveness:

  • Acknowledge the poor decision
  • Offer yourself compassion
  • Grieve
  • Learn the lesson
  • Repair or make amends
  • Release regret

Write About Your Regrets

You can try journaling or writing a letter to the person you hurt. You can also write a letter to yourself about your regrets. First, write in detail about the event and accept what happened. Then write about what you learned from it and what you can do differently in the future. Lastly, write about what could make this situation better now.

Regarding the last part, you can’t go back in time. But maybe you can do something good now. As an example, that father who worked too much and whose family isn’t close could now volunteer with young kids at a local Boys and Girls Club.

Seek Mental Health Counseling

If you’ve been obsessing about your regrets, this fixation can prevent you from healing. Consider counseling if you feel like you're unable to move forward. Mental health practitioners have a variety of therapies that might assist you.

For example, cognitive-behavioral therapy can help you disrupt negative thought patterns that are involved with regret. It can help you learn how to create more positive behaviors.

A Word From Verywell

If you're feeling regret over something from your past, know you're not alone in feeling this way. Everyone has something (or many things) that they regret. However, there are ways to heal and move forward by showing yourself understanding. If that's too difficult, enlist the help of a mental health professional. A therapist can help you manage feelings of regret so they no longer hold you back.

6 Sources
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.
  1. Coricelli G, Critchley HD, Joffily M, O'Doherty JP, Sirigu A, Dolan RJ. Regret and its avoidance: a neuroimaging study of choice behaviorNat Neurosci. 2005;8(9):1255-1262. doi:10.1038/nn1514

  2. Dickerson SS, Kemeny ME, Aziz N, Kim KH, Fahey JL. Immunological effects of induced shame and guiltPsychosom Med. 2004;66(1):124-131. doi:10.1097/01.psy.0000097338.75454.29

  3. The Cleveland Clinic. Inflammation.

  4. Davidai S, Gilovich T. The ideal road not taken: The self-discrepancies involved in people's most enduring regretsEmotion. 2018;18(3):439-452. doi:10.1037/emo0000326

  5. Towers A, Williams MN, Hill SR, Philipp MC, Flett R. What Makes for the Most Intense Regrets? Comparing the Effects of Several Theoretical Predictors of Regret IntensityFront Psychol. 2016;7:1941. Published 2016 Dec 15. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2016.01941

  6. Zhang JW, Chen S. Self-Compassion Promotes Personal Improvement From Regret Experiences via AcceptancePers Soc Psychol Bull. 2016;42(2):244-258. doi:10.1177/0146167215623271

By Barbara Field
Barbara is a writer and speaker who is passionate about mental health, overall wellness, and women's issues.