It's normal to experience large and small regrets, so regret isn't an emotion you need to be scared of. Here are some tips for coping when it happens:
1. Ditch "I'll never to do that again" thinking.
When we regret something, the feeling isn't usually about a mistake we've made for the first time. Rather, we more often feel regret over falling into our common self-sabotaging patterns. You might regret staying up watching YouTube until midnight because you end up feeling exhausted at work all of the next day. You wish you'd gone to bed at 10 pm instead. Or maybe you regret letting yourself get over-hungry or over-tired—and that decision leading to eating two-thirds of a large bag of potato chips.
If you've fallen into certain traps dozens of times before, it's not likely that you'll never do those things again. Instead of vowing to never make the same mistake again, acknowledge that you need strategies for gradually improving your habits or limiting the negative consequences when you have failures of self-control.
2. Acknowledge what you're feeling.
People love to say, "I have no regrets," but that's not very realistic and probably not true. Like any "negative" emotion, regret is a common experience and one that we're designed to be able to psychologically cope with.
When you acknowledge your emotions instead of denying them, it helps prompt you to think about strategies you could use to minimize the pain of future experiences of that emotion. Also, specifically identifying which emotion you're feeling—that is, acknowledging, "I feel regret" rather than just thinking, "I feel bad"—will help make tolerating the emotions you're experiencing feel more manageable.
When you regret something major, like having worked too much when your children were little, having stayed in a bad relationship too long, or having started late with retirement investing, try keeping in mind that regret is a universal human emotion, no matter what some people will claim about themselves. We're all imperfect. You don't need to create a silver lining out of every situation. Sometimes regret is just regret.
3. Believe in your capacity to grow.
Regret can cause us to become excessively hesitant or avoidant. Regret about a failed relationship may lead you to avoid dating. Or regret about a poor financial decision may lead to you to put investing in your "too-hard" basket and avoiding it completely. Just because you made some less than ideal decisions doesn't mean you're doomed to permanent failure in any one area.
4. Look for little thinking hacks to help you with your patterns.
Shifts in your thinking can help prevent you from repeating the same mistakes quite so often. Author Gretchen Rubin has a great tip: If you regret staying up so late, try thinking about going to sleep early as a treat. It's common to think of staying up late enjoying some personal time as a treat, but think about it: so is hitting your bed and enjoying all those immensely comforting sensations.
Will this sort of thinking shift stop you from ever staying up late watching TV or mucking around on your computer? Probably not—but it might shift your behavior in some instances.
It's far easier to find simple hacks for improving your behavior than it is to completely eradicate problem habits. The Happier Podcast is a great source of ideas for thinking shifts related to the sorts of everyday struggles many people experience. If your regrets relate to how you prioritize, try these tips for focusing on the important, not just the urgent.
5. Give yourself an appropriate amount of time to absorb your feelings.
To cope effectively with regret, a subtle balancing act needs to happen. Ruminating isn't helpful—but neither is attempting to just brush your feelings aside.
Try this: Think about a small regret. For example, you didn't doublecheck that you had your Costco card before leaving the house and got all the way to the store without it. That type of regret is something you want to give yourself a few minutes to absorb. If you feel frustrated with yourself and self-critical, those feelings will naturally dissipate pretty quickly on their own.
If you have a larger regret—e.g., you painted your house a color you don't actually like just because the color was trendy—then it might take a few weeks or months for those feelings to dissipate. They'll ebb and flow, and will likely pop up and bug you periodically.
In both examples, the more you can leave your emotions alone to just work themselves out, the better. If feelings of regret pop up and bug you intermittently, you can cope with that. A point I discuss in my book, The Healthy Mind Toolkit, is that human emotions are a signaling system. A traffic light isn't useful if either red or green are permanently lit. The light is only a useful signal if it changes to give you information. Emotions are like that, too: They're designed to come on and then go away. When emotions become sticky, it's usually because we're feeding them in some way, through rumination, harsh self-criticism, or avoidance. If you allow your emotions to naturally work themselves out, that's often more efficient and effective than trying to do something to "make" them go away, which can easily backfire.