5 ways to help handle life’s regrets

Young handsome man in the shirt with sad face expression feeling regrets depressed and miserable while he thinking about life

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Yesterday I was talking with a woman who retired 12 months ago. She’s naturally found herself reflecting more on her life. Soon we were talking about the ‘cringe of regret’. That’s when you remember something you did/said in the past and cringe at the memory.

We all gather regrets. That’s a reality. And the longer you live the more regrets you can gather—that’s another reality.

Regret is ‘the aching feeling you get when you realise you could have done something differently and could have made things better,’ says Neal Roese in his book If Only, and, ‘It can be a very painful experience.’

‘For severely traumatic experiences, regrets can gush as though from a fountain. The more painful the experience, the more intense the regret.’ Regrets can come in different forms, he adds: ‘If only I had told her I loved her’; ‘I should have studied harder’; ‘If only I’d said something sooner.’

But rather than merely cringe at the ‘if only’ thoughts, are there things that can be done to lessen the pain? Here are five suggestions:

1. Don’t be too tough on yourself

Melanie Greenberg tells of a man in Liverpool who always chose the same set of lottery numbers. The one time he forgot to renew his ticket, his numbers came up.

His regret led him to commit suicide.

We don’t know the full story of what else was happening in his life, but this shouldn’t have been the end of his world. He could have and would have recovered, but he didn’t give himself the chance.

The reality is that we all make mistakes that bring regret. That’s a given. How we handle them is a key to how well we live life.

2. Don’t just sit there, do something

‘Ride the wave of regret to fuel changes,’ says Roese. He talks about the energy that comes from powerful feelings like anger, embarrassment, and shame. We have a choice, he says, spinning our wheels and beating ourselves up, or using this energy as a springboard to positive action.

‘Don’t try too hard to unmake your thought processes and emotions. Rather, grab them and hold on, steer just a little bit, and ride them to success.’

3. Focus on what you’ve learned

When that cringe of regret attacks, ask yourself, ‘What can I / have I learned from that incident or omission?’ And ask, ‘What would I do differently?’ This kind of analysis allows you to look at a specific regret objectively.

There may never be a next time when you’re tempted to say/do the same thing, but if there is, you have the chance to act differently. More important is the probability that what you learn from the experience will help you handle life now.

The bottom line is this: you can’t change the past, but you can learn from it.

4. Work out what you can do

Is there some way you can attempt to counter the regret? For instance, if you regret not learning to play a musical instrument as a child, you can learn now. If a friendship has been broken by something you did, can you contact the person and apologise? That may not lead to anything in response, but you have attempted to make it right. You’ve taken steps to tackle the regret.

Many regrets can’t be addressed in such a way, but, if not, there’s still something you can do—let it go. That doesn’t mean the regret will be forgotten—if only! Letting go means you refuse to let it impact on your life. You’ve moved on.

5. Find the positives in your regret

This may be difficult although Roese reckons that ‘regret is good. Thinking about what might have been is a normal component of the brain’s attempt to make sense of the world, and of the human quest for betterment.’

Hopefully you can see the good within your regret. That could go back to what you learned from it. It could also be how you adjusted your life because of it. Then again, perhaps it was something you tried that didn’t work out. The attempt at something—even if it doesn’t work—is a positive.

One more thing

Regrets are a reality of life, particularly for those entering the retirement zone who have a significant number of years to reflect back on. If there’s a particular regret that keeps dragging you down you may need to seek professional help. There’s no shame in that and it has the potential of freeing you from being bound by regret.

Remember, despite regrets, life is worth living for all it’s worth.

Bruce Manners, author of Retirement Ready? and Refusing to Retire.

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Category: Emotional Health

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