5 Ways Regret is Ruining Your Life and How to Move On Already

This is a guest contribution.

Regret is a sticky thing. Like gum stuck on the sole of your favorite shoes, it came unexpectedly and it’s hard to get rid of. You never expected to step in it, you did your best to get it off, but it still left a sticky dirt-encrusted glob. We don’t expect to regret things {well, there was that one time in college} …. usually. And it seems most of the things causing us loads of regret are those things we didn’t see coming. Like that piece of gum we stepped in.

More surprising than the sticky nature of regret is that the act of regretting is ruining your life. An argument with a loved one, a poor decision at work, or a slip of the tongue that hurt another –we encounter situations every day with the potential for regret. We’re only imperfect humans and mistakes are part of life. Yet if we let it, regret will hijack our mental energies, negatively affect our health, and keep us stuck in the past.

A few months back, I had a falling out with a dear friend and mentor. We both said some things in anger and didn’t speak for a while. I always intended to make amends, yet she died suddenly: before I had the chance to let her know how much I cared for her. The regret I felt about my role in our disagreement immediately loomed large in my mind. I found myself rehashing our final conversation over and over with no different outcome {obviously} and no possibility for reconciliation. I had trouble focusing on my work, I couldn’t eat or sleep, and I was irritable with my loved ones. Regret was hijacking my joy and wreaking havoc on my life.

Regret is part of our human situation. We’re only human and it’s only natural we’ll make mistakes, poor decisions, or say unkind words we’ll later regret. So how do we let go of regret, take back our happiness, and move on? We learn how regret works to ruin our life and we take action to prevent it:

#1: Regret keeps us stuck in the past

Regret keeps us looking backward and sets up a cognitive tape-loop of obsessive ‘what if’ ‘should have’ and ‘why didn’t I’ thoughts. Thoughts like these create neural pathways that are reinforced over time; so the more we think about that regret-filled situation, the more we find ourselves regretting it. And the more we regret, the more we look back, and the LESS mental energy we have for looking forward –or appreciating the present moment.

What to do: Visualize a better outcome.

Indulge yourself for a moment: What could you have done differently? What should you have said? If it helps you to write, spend a few moments writing out the situation in a journal or in a letter you’ll never send. Alternately, consult with a trusted friend about the situation. Give yourself the opportunity to say or do the ‘right’ thing….even if it’s just hypothetical. Then let it go.

#2: Regret hijacks our attention

The mental mechanism that regret {and its second cousin guilt} employs to keep us stuck in the near distant past is called reciprocal inhibition or the inhibition of certain groups of neurons while others are active. While this is a handy tool for helping us focus on a task at hand, it backfires when we’re focusing on a negative experience or a should-woulda-coulda situation. Continually shifting our attention back to those regretful thoughts prohibits us from pointing the lens of our attention at what truly matters.

What to do: Focus on the present.

When you find yourself re-hashing the situation or returning to the regretful thoughts, take a quick mental pause. Tune into your breath, check in with your body, and notice what you’re doing. Bring your attention fully to the present and back to the task at hand. In so doing, you’ll activate an alternate neural network and quiet down those neurons stuck on regretful thoughts.

#3: Regret builds on itself

The brain preferentially remembers negative situations. In many cases, this is an evolutionary advantage; for example, we’ll never forget the pain of burning our hand on the hot stove, so we’ll avoid it in the future. Yet this habit of filing negative situations away and letting positive situations slip through the metaphorical cracks in our memory contributes to the psychological pain regret causes.

What to do: Focus on the positive.

Call to mind other difficult situations you handled well. Highlight points in your personal or professional behavior on which you’re often complimented. Make a list of these positive situations or attributes and call these things to mind when you feel overcome with regret.

#4: Regret makes you feel worse

You will literally make yourself sick with regret. Chronic negative emotions –including regret—are linked with increased vulnerability to disease (PDF). Elevated stress hormones disrupt the immune and endocrine systems putting you at a higher risk for contracting illness and a reduced ability to fight off infection. Continuing to obsess about the choices, actions, or words you regret creates a physiological cascade leading to {or exaggerating the effects of} chronic stress. Chronic stress is linked with chronic disease –from rheumatoid arthritis to cardiovascular disease –so do yourself {and your health} the great service of jumping off the runaway regret train.

What to do: Put it in perspective.

In the grand scheme of things, where does this particular regret-filled experience rank? Are you regretting harsh words with a dear friend? How does that argument compare to your friendship on the whole? Remember my own regret-filled experience from earlier? I finally moved past that regret because I chose to view that negative experience as only one of many {mostly} positive experiences throughout the friendship. Do you regret your choice to drop out of college? Focus instead on what that decision allowed you to accomplish or experience. Reframe your current regrets to encompass the constellation of other decisions, experiences, and outcomes that make your life meaningful. {Then take a few moments to relax}

#5: Focusing on regret keeps us from learning from our mistakes

To be human is to fail. Part of our process as human beings is to learn from our mistakes and move on. If we’re truly wise, we’ll learn from others’ mistakes, too, and avoid the hassle of repeating them. However, when we’re stuck on HOW we failed, we miss the opportunity to learn from that failure.

What to do: Accept the lesson.

Pretend a friend came to you with a similar situation. What advice might you give them about the situation? What would you say to them? How might you interpret the situation symbolically? Now how can you apply this advice in your own situation? Consider your regretful situation as a learning experience and commit to learning the lesson it is offering to teach. Put it on your ‘lessons learned’ list and move on.

Written by Kellie Adkins, M.Sc., ERYT

Kellie is a mommy, writer, yoga teacher, and holistic health coach fascinated with the link between brain, biology, and behavior and frequently reads neuroscience journals for fun. She draws from contemplative neuroscience, positive psychology, yoga philosophy, and the mindfulness traditions in her coaching practice. If you happen to be in Florida’s Bible Belt look her up for some irreverent jokes, a cup of tea, or some kick-asana Vinyasa Flow yoga. Kellie leads yoga teacher trainings, retreats, and workshops all over and is obsessed with all things French. When she’s not writing, teaching, chasing her toddler or balancing on her hands, you’ll find her knitting sweaters….just because.

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Tree photograph by David Lienhard

Body & Soul | June 1st, 2012 | Written by Andrew Galasetti