Everyone knows what it’s like to regret something from the past. Maybe you made a big mistake at work, or missed out on an opportunity, or said something hurtful to someone.
Perhaps you hurt someone long ago, and what you regret most of all now is that you never apologized or made amends for it, and now they’re gone from your life.
You can regret things you’ve done and things you haven’t done; you can regret things that happened recently, or long ago, too.
But no matter the situation, when you’re experiencing regret, there’s a part of you that’s speaking up to put you on notice that you’ve done something to hurt you or someone else, put yourself at a disadvantage, violate your moral code, or fell short in some other way.
You have an internal watchdog, and regret is the way it barks at you to get your attention, and get you back on track.
And it’s effective, right? When you feel regret, you understand pretty quickly that you did something, or didn’t do something, that produced a negative outcome, and you’d do things differently next time. It’s a good and healthy mechanism we have to help us stay aware of what’s good for us and other people.
However, sometimes it runs amok. The watchdog of your mind won’t just remind you once or twice of the regretful situation; sometimes it’ll take you back there hundreds of times, over the course of years.
When you keep kicking yourself like that, it can impact your mental health—your self-esteem and confidence, in particular. That can leave you even more susceptible to acting in regrettable ways. Also, it doesn’t feel very good!
How your brain sets you up for regret
So, I have some tips for you that will help you stop this cycle of regret. But before we cover strategies, let’s talk about a few qualities of the human brain that set the stage for regret in the first place. Then you’ll understand why my tips make sense.
First, your mind hates having unfinished business. Have you ever been called away while you’re in the middle of doing something, and then were distracted until you went back to finish up where you left off? Then you’ve experienced the “Zeigarnik effect.”
Whether it’s a mundane task (the basket of laundry you need to finish folding) or one that connects deeply with your self-identity (the degree program you didn’t quite finish), your brain will not be happy with you if you don’t see them through.
Second, short-term regrets usually concern something you’ve done (errors of commission), but long term most likely have to do with things you haven’t done (errors of omission).
It makes sense in light of No. 1 above: since your mind hates loose ends, as long as unfinished business exists, it will remain a sore spot for you.
Third, the single largest cause of inaction is fear. It’s a natural response to the unknown that’s intended to keep you from harm, but if it has incomplete information, your brain will fill in the blanks on its own, often making assumptions that make the situation seem riskier.
This, in turn, can begin a snowball effect: you turn inward, taking in less and less information (creating more and more unknowns) and make increasingly uninformed decisions.
It’s like a child, convinced that a monster lives under her bed, pulling a blanket over her eyes, hoping that this will make her invisible. Yet the more she hides, the more scared she feels!
Now that you understand how regret works in your mind, let’s move on to some tips for living with less second-guessing and more confidence.
How to Stop Having Regrets in the Long Term
1. Be open to feedback and new information
If a big part of the regret problem is your mind’s tendency to fill in blanks with fear-multiplying assumptions, then the antidote is to minimize the number of blanks.
Knowledge is fear’s worst enemy: just ask any parents who’ve successfully "banished” their child’s under-the-bed monster simply by turning the lights on and taking a quick look with her.
You can do the same by being receptive to input and actively seeking information. Nurturing a sense of curiosity and openness—not just when you’re facing a decision, but all the time.
A great way to cultivate more awareness and acceptance of your experience of life—the events, as well as your thoughts and feelings about them—is to start practicing mindfulness meditation.
It’ll keep you well-informed, and help you establish a healthy response to uncertainty: relaxing into it, surveying the facts and the blanks just as they are, and choosing a smart next step. And that means less chance of regret down the road.
You can get started today with one of my free guided meditations!
2. Focus on intrinsic rewards and abstract goals
We know that people motivated by extrinsic rewards (things like money, belongings, and fame) tend to be less happy than people who are intrinsically motivated (things like feelings or values).
Extrinsic motivation also hits you with a double whammy when it comes to regret: research shows that if you’re interrupted in the middle of an activity that you’re doing for extrinsic reasons, you’re less likely to return to it.
And guess what? That leaves a loose end, ushering in a new cycle of regret!
So, keep your long-term goals abstract (“I want to enjoy close connections with others”) instead of concrete (“I want to be married and have two children within five years”), and only use concrete goals for shorter-term objectives.
You’ll be happier, more persistent, and less likely to leave unfinished business that way.
3. Make a decision and take action
Do your best to incorporate the above tips, but even if you aren’t successful in either or both of them, your best bet in general is: when in doubt, act. If you make the best decision possible at the time, using the best information you have available, regret won’t have a foothold.
But do try your best to use this tip along with the others.
Reach for the proverbial light switch when you enter uncertain, dark situations. Pay attention to what’s going on around you, and within you. Connect to your internal light source—the deeply-held values that really motivate you, and act on those.
Do these things, and there won’t be many shadows left to scare you, nor justification for self-recrimination.
Will taking more action expose you to more short-term regret? Of course, because you’ll still make mistakes of some kind no matter how informed or aligned with your core values you are.
However, taking action is a win-win for you in the long run.
If your action is successful, then that’s obviously good. But even if you get it wrong, you’re still better off, because if you happen to trip as you’re moving forward, that still beats being chained to the floor.
In other words, it’s better to regret something you did for a little while than to regret something that you didn’t do forever.
Are you struggling with regret, a setback, or some other difficult life transition? Click here to download your free Setback Survival Pack! You’ll learn tools and techniques for your mind and body that’ll put an end to your sleepless nights and worried days, so you can put your best foot forward. Includes PDF, video, and audio guides!