You stayed in many toxic relationships. Many years too long. You never finished college. You left a really good job for a job you now can’t stand. You had countless embarrassing, neglectful drunken moments, which ultimately led to your divorce. You filed for bankruptcy. You racked up thousands upon thousands of dollars in student loans. You threw yourself into work while a loved one was dying. You pursued the profession your parents demanded. You didn’t say what you wanted to say. You didn’t trust yourself.
And you regret it. And you keep thinking about these regrets—these bad moments, these bad decisions—over and over and over. You play out various scenarios. You play out different decisions you could’ve made.
“We all have regrets about decisions we make that didn’t go according to plan,” said Laura Reagan, LCSW-C, an integrative trauma therapist in private practice outside of Baltimore. “Mistakes are how we learn.”
Still, knowing that each decision is a learning opportunity might not stop you from ruminating about your regrets. Reagan has found that stubborn, persistent regret is typically tied to feelings of shame and self-blame. It also “seems to be more common to ruminate about regrets for people whose parents were critical and controlling,” she said.
Ruminating about our regrets is how we distract ourselves from the pain reflected in the behavior. “[I]t is easier for some of us to beat ourselves up for decisions we regret…than to allow ourselves to feel the emotions and beliefs about ourselves underlying those regrets.” It’s easier to regret not finishing college than it is to face the fear that you won’t be able to find a high-paying job; your family will always see you as a disappointment; and you’ll forever feel self-conscious at work because of your (lack of) education, said Reagan, also host of Therapy Chat podcast.
But even though it doesn’t feel like it, you can move through your regrets. Reagan suggested trying this journaling exercise.
- Write down the decision or situation you deeply regret.
- Reflect on why you regret it. What about it do you regret? Did certain negative consequences cause problems in your life?
- From the perspective of a compassionate friend, write down why you made the decision you made at that time. Try to empathize with yourself. For instance, according to Reagan, if you didn’t finish college, you might write: “College was hard for you. You were overwhelmed with being away from home, wanting to fit in with new people, and managing the academic load. When your parents suggested you move back home and take some time off, you thought they knew best. You were struggling and you made the decision you thought was best at the time.” If you regret staying in an abusive relationship, you might write, she said: “When you and Mike started dating, he treated you so kindly. You wanted to trust him and you didn’t recognize the red flags when he got angry and called you names, or behaved in an intimidating and aggressive manner. This is understandable, considering your father behaved that way towards your mother when you were growing up. You didn’t have a model of a respectful romantic relationship to guide you in recognizing the unhealthy dynamics of your relationship with Mike.”
- Reflect on whether you’d do anything differently if you were in the same situation in the future. Write down your response.
- Focus on what you can control about your regret today. If you regret not completing college, can you go back? What can you do to address your self-consciousness at work? Write down one or two changes you can make, along with the steps you can take to achieve them. For instance, Reagan said, if you regretted a past relationship, you decide to examine the parts that didn’t work for you. You also examine the boundaries you want to set in future relationships and read a book on how. If you regret yelling at your kids so much, you check out reputable resources on how to effectively communicate with children and cultivate a close, healthy relationship with them.
Our regrets often have deeper layers. These layers are made of fears and feelings of shame about who we were, who we wanted to be, how our lives turned out today. But we are meant to be imperfect, mistake makers. This is not some platitude or empty affirmation. This is fact. While the results are rarely pretty—often painful and hard—this fact is critical. This fact is a wonderful thing.
As physician Lewis Thomas wrote in his essay “To Err is Human,” “If we were not provided with the knack of being wrong, we could never get anything useful done. We think our way along by choosing between right and wrong alternatives, and the wrong choices have to be made as frequently as the right ones. We get along in life this way. We are built to make mistakes, coded for error…. If we had only a single center in our brains, capable of responding only when a correct decision was to be made, instead of the jumble of different credulous, easily conned clusters of neurons that provide for being flung off into blind alleys, up trees, down dead ends, out into blue sky, along wrong turnings, around bends, we could only stay the way we are today, stuck fast.”
Thankfully, we don’t stay stuck. We have the opportunity and ability to move, to shift, to blossom.