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8 Ways Regret Can Lead to Personal Growth

Make meaning, fortify gratitude, and live in the present moment.

Key points

  • The most common regrets people have are related to romance, family, education, career, finance, and parenting, according to a survey.
  • Short-term regrets tend to be about things people did, whereas long-lasting regrets tend to relate to inaction.
  • Our minds tend to focus on negative experience as a way of protecting us from repeating mistakes, but we can learn from our regrets.
Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz/Pexels
Source: Mehmet Turgut Kirkgoz/Pexels

I work with an array of patients who very often express regrets. I hear, “I wish I didn’t say what I did, I just inadvertently and impulsively blurted it out”; “If only I chose another college, then I wouldn’t have ended up back home without finishing out the semester”; “I should have made my needs known and asserted them and avoided lingering in my relationship for as long as I did”; and “If I was more aware, then I could have prevented my father’s suicide.”

What Do Individuals Regret Most?

Researchers at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign surveyed adults about their regrets. About 18 percent cited regrets involving romance. That was followed closely by regrets about family (16 percent), education (13 percent), career (12 percent), finance (10 percent), and parenting (9 percent), according to their findings published in the journal Social Psychological & Personality Science.

Most of the respondents said they regretted not getting the education they wished for or having the career they had envisioned. Having a stronger financial picture came in next, closely followed by wishing they had not made parenting mistakes or regretting the health and lifestyle choices they have made.

Women were more likely than men to have regrets about romantic or family relationships. About 44 percent of the regrets described by women were about relationship mistakes compared to 19 percent for men. New studies have found that women experience stronger feelings of regret than men by a ratio of almost three to one.

Many of the regrets expressed about work involved missed opportunities (e.g., turning down a job or failing to take risks that could have led to a more fulfilling career). Those with less education were more likely to have education regrets, and conversely, those with more education were more likely to have career regrets.

Short-term regrets tend to be about things people did, but the long-lasting regrets were more often about things that people didn’t do. When it comes to inaction, people invariably forget the barriers that kept them from taking the action; they only remember that they didn’t try.

What You Can Learn from Your Regrets

1. To accept personal responsibility. You can see your part in a particular situation or circumstance and gain personal insight into what was the impetus that led you there.

2. Insight into who you were in the past. You are who you are today precisely because of who you were in the past. Your past experiences, which might have seemed like good ideas during those times, appear very different to you now because of what you have learned about yourself and your needs during those circumstances. We must step outside of the person we have been, remember the person we want to be and are capable of being, and strive to work towards change and enhancing ourselves for the future.

3. Understand your core values and what regret means to you. People who have regrets about the long-ago past tend to pine for things they should have done. More recent regrets tend to revolve around things we did but wish we hadn’t done. Better understanding your core values gives you clear direction on what values you may have violated or overlooked that evoked such strong emotions and what values to acutely pay attention to when you take action now and make decisions in the future.

4. How mistakes can be a masterful teaching tool. Life is a research project, and we are not only the subjects, but we are also the scientists leading the exploration. The knowledge we acquire is through our experience and awareness. We have to approach life with openness and curiosity to gather as much information as we possibly can. Intrinsic in our humanness is regret which can sometimes be painful. However, a life without regret is not only virtually impossible, it would eliminate a fundamental emotion that spurs you and others to be vigilant about avoiding future mistakes.

It is a prime opportunity to reflect on your true core values and assess what may have led you to abandon your values in the particular circumstance (e.g., your beliefs, thoughts, emotions, etc.). You can also notice how this action or reaction may have negatively impacted yourself and others.

5. To embrace impermanence, lack of control and adapting to change. Everything in life is impermanent and there are really no guarantees. We often do not have control over the things that happen to us and must expect adversity and challenges. This requires us to build our coping skills and find productive ways to adapt to change and cope with whatever comes our way, whether it be positive or negative.

6. Evaluate meaning in your relationships. This may give you an opportunity to strengthen your relationships and may be the perfect time to remove unhealthy relationships from your life. If you have hurt someone, take the opportunity to discover what really motivated your actions. Think about how your action(s) affected yourself and others. Think of ways in which to possibly repair those relationships and also decide how you will behave differently in the future.

7. To live mindfully and be in the present moment. If you are stuck in the regret, so much so that you are preoccupied with it or it is getting in the way of moving forward or taking action on behalf of your values, you have a fundamental choice as to whether you will continue to regret or mindfully and compassionately forgive yourself.

While you can and will most likely have a negative emotional reaction to when and how your actions have directly and adversely affected yourself or others, remind yourself that you are living in the past and it is taking away from being in the present moment and fully enjoying and embracing your life. Staying stuck in the past will inevitably evoke more anger, anxiety, shame, and disappointment. Purposefully and consciously bring yourself to the here and now even if your mind has another agenda.

8. How to turn regret into gratitude. The sentiment is not to just forget the past and move on. It is rooted in acceptance regarding what has happened without hoping it were different, recognition that you cannot turn back time, and awareness that you need to feel the feelings that get evoked from the regret. The array of feelings that surface such as anxiety, guilt or distress serve an integral function so that you contemplate, process and are led to make different and better decisions in the future. Acceptance is an active process and isn’t contingent on wanting, liking, condoning or encouraging your regretful behaviors. It is inclusive of acknowledging gratitude for your personal growth and archiving your mistake as part of your history, rather than being defined by it or becoming part of your core identity.

Growing Through Regret

As Viktor Frankl remarked, “Even the most negative aspects of human existence, such as guilt, suffering, and death, can be viewed positively, given the right attitude.” He suggests finding meaning in your suffering and suggests that if you do that directly, you can learn from it and the regret and guilt can dissipate.

Our mind causes us to extrapolate and hone in on negativity and the most challenging and emotionally uncomfortable parts of situations and circumstances. We innately remember those heart-wrenching moments which we habitually play over and over in our minds to make sense of it, in a wish to rework and change it, and imagine how the circumstances could be different and better “if only.”

Showing compassion to ourselves for our fallible and human imperfections is not a mechanism to minimize or rationalize our negative behaviors. Rather, it is a way to tap into our intrinsic values and decide what did not work for us in the past, and directly and consciously decide how we want to live out the rest of our lives in line with those core values.

As much as our mind hyperfocuses on our regrets, as a mechanism to incessantly protect us so that we keenly remember the past and avoid redoing or repeating it, we recognize that we can’t go back, but rather we can strive to make our future more hopeful and meaningful.

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