I’d tried for that promotion. Kept my mouth shut. Approached the customer differently. Apologized to my friend sooner. If only I’d done things differently, then my life would be better now.
No matter who you are or what you’ve accomplished in your life, chances are you have a regret or two. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing: Regret can motivate us to address our problems and make better decisions in the future, says Amy Summerville, Associate Professor of Psychology at Miami University.
However, ruminating on regret keeps us stuck in a negative cycle. “Experiencing regret too often or too powerfully can be detrimental to a person’s wellbeing,” says Shai Davidai, Assistant Professor of Psychology at The New School for Social Research. “It can also become demotivating. If people begin to fear the regret they may experience as a consequence of their decisions, they can then become incapable of making any decision at all.”
So, how do you stay in the sweet spot where regret is a source of motivation, rather than anxiety? Both experts say that with awareness and practice, you can consciously choose to use regret to your advantage instead of brooding aimlessly about what might’ve been. Here’s how:
1. Do What You Can
It’s crucial to accurately identify the source of the regret so that you can fully understand the cause behind the negative event, Summerville says—and then determine what do you (and don’t) have control over.
If you do have control:
Action can be the antidote to lingering regrets. Think through the appropriate steps or positive changes that you have the power to make either in the future or in the present moment: Did you hurt someone? If you need to apologize, do it. Feel like you missed out on an opportunity? Get ready for next time, starting now.
If you don’t have control:
If there’s nothing you could have done differently, the only action left to take is to forgive yourself. Ask yourself, what would you say to a friend in your position? How would you comfort them? Write it down, using the same language to explain to yourself why it’s okay to let it go.
2. Change Your Perspective
Your approach to decision-making has an impact on how you react to regret, Summerville says. If you tend to seek perfection or put pressure on yourself to find the single best option when making a decision, you’re setting yourself up for a lifetime of wondering what could have or should have been. In reality, you may never know for sure if you’ve picked the absolute best choice—so much of life is unpredictable. Release yourself from needing to determine the right choice and instead focus on finding a choice that meets your needs.
3. Talk About It
If you find that you’re having a hard time moving on from your regrets, talk it over with a trusted friend (or, if you’re really struggling, a mental health professional), Davidai suggests.
Identifying and sharing your feelings can help you move beyond them—and regret is a universal experience, so talking about it with others will almost certainly help you feel less alone. “When some adults say they have ‘no regrets’ I don’t think they mean they are incapable of feeling regret and never feel bad that they made a mistake,” she says. “Rather, I think people say this to mean that they don’t ruminate about regret. And that is a good thing.”
Remember: We’re all doing the best we can in the circumstances we face. Mistakes make you human, so be kind to yourself and learn what you can from each experience—then let it go.
Polly Campbell is Portland-based author and speaker specializing in psychology, resilience, and wellness topics. She is the author of three books: How to Live an Awesome Life: How to Live Well. Do Good. Be Happy; Imperfect Spirituality: Extraordinary Enlightenment for Ordinary People; and How to Reach Enlightenment. Tweet her @PLCampbell.