Regret is one of the most painful human emotions.
Regret is one of the most painful human emotions, and letting go is one of the hardest things to do in life.
Perhaps you hurt a loved one. Maybe you missed out on an opportunity to build a more stable or fulfilling life. Or, possibly, you compromised your morals, or challenged your own identity?
Is there anything quite as stomach-churning as feeling responsible for your own misfortune or the misfortune of others?
The “self” is our sense of who we are.
Over time, we build an autobiographical coherence – a steady perception of ourselves. But, in regret, some event occurs that disrupts that constructed identity.
We are forced to reevaluate our narrative. We don’t live up to our personal expectations, and then we have to reckon with our own fallibility. We have to rewrite our story and update our character description.
No matter the regret, the negative sensations can be all-consuming. And, in fact, they’re designed to be.
We are biologically wired for regret.
We evolved to look for threats and remember our mistakes – in acute detail – to avoid repeating them. These uncomfortable emotions stick with us.
The good news is: we evolved this way for a reason. If we can harness our regret properly, it can serve as a lesson and a compass.
But, if we can’t, our regret can sabotage us. When we suppress our regret or over-indulge it, we fail to integrate our sense of self.
Sometimes people repress their regret because it’s too painful to reconcile the vision they had of themselves with reality.
In other instances, people fall into the abyss of their regret and devolve into a debilitating state of self-flagellation, negative bias, and shame. They reconstruct their identity around being a failure.
In either instance, they have lost sight of the purpose of regret and they are unable to live up to their full potential. But, instead, if they can practice facing regrets with self-compassion, they can use them as a tool to move towards a higher purpose.
How To Let Go Of Regrets
Letting go of regrets and learning to forgive yourself is one of the most challenging things many of us will face, but it is possible to overcome your thoughts and move forward.
Here are 6 simple tips to help you let go of regret and learn to forgive yourself.
Reflect On Your Values
In his book, The Power of Regret, New York Times best-selling author Daniel H. Pink argues that regret acts as a “photographic negative of the good life.”
When we examine our greatest regrets, our greatest values come into clearer focus.
Instead of entering a state of distress and ruminating on our mistakes, we can use regret as a tool to uncover fundamental principles.
Why is it so upsetting to you that you went against these specific values? What is most important to you in life? And what are you willing to do to nurture that?
By clarifying your ideals, you can take action towards a greater good. This will build resilience and give your entire life renewed meaning and purpose.
Take Accountability For Your Actions
Regret is an internal reminder that you’ve done something out of step with your values.
If that’s the case, the only way to move through regret is to own up to your past mistakes and make amends. If you utilize the moment properly, it can be an opportunity to deepen your relationships, grow, and evolve.
You can acknowledge your past shortcomings and take steps to make up for your errors in judgment.
If you’ve broken something, repair it. If you were absent-minded, learn tactics to become more present. If you’ve harmed someone, apologize sincerely for your past actions.
Remember: this is a chance to be better going forward and avoid making the same mistake in the future.
Practice Non-Judgemental Awareness
When the sensation of regret arises in your body, it can feel overwhelming.
You may feel compelled to tamp it down, sweep it under the rug, and ignore it. But you mustn’t suppress the bad feeling.
Remember, negative feelings have just as much of a right to exist as positive feelings do. Just don’t allow yourself to get swept up, consumed, and debilitated by them.
Instead, practice non-judgmental awareness.
Regrets are like storm clouds, floating through consciousness – full of lightning and hail. But, like any storm cloud, they will pass. The sensations of regret are temporary.
If you disrupt the feeling before it has a chance to express and evolve, it will never pass. But if you contemplate it honestly and in its totality (without descending into self-perpetuated rumination), you can allow it to let you take positive action and ultimately release it.
Remember Your Shared Connection To Humanity
You are not alone in your suffering.
No matter your regret, there are myriads of others who share it. People make mistakes. In fact, it is a hallmark of humanity.
Remember, you are not isolated in this collective experience.
As you shed a sense of being “terminally unique” you can recognize your role in a larger story, one of redemption and resilience.
Look to history, literature, and loved ones for examples and you’ll find a litany of errors in judgment, followed by painful remorse.
Share your story and you may be shocked to see how people receive you with grace, compassion, and understanding.
Exercise Self-Compassion And Self-Forgiveness
In moments like these, it’s easy to beat yourself up.
But tearing yourself down can immobilize you and waste precious energy you could be using for your own well-being and the well-being of your greater community.
Instead, try to exercise self-compassion and radical self-forgiveness.
You may repeat a personal mantra like the following:
- “This is a moment of suffering and suffering is part of all life.”
- “May I be kind to myself in this moment.”
- “May I give myself the compassion I need.”
You may practice compassion imagery, envisioning a kind person (perhaps a spiritual figure or a beloved relative) who makes you feel understood and comfortable.
For instance, imagine yourself with your doting grandmother, in her cozy home environment, with your favorite snacks, and warm conversation.
How would this person nourish and support you in the present moment?
Move Away From Shame
Just as regret can be motivating, shame can be debilitating.
Don’t allow yourself to lapse into a shame-ridden state. You may have done something bad, but that does not mean you are inherently bad and doomed to stay that way.
Researcher and storyteller Brené Brown says, “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”
If you’re experiencing shame, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) – ”a treatment approach that helps you recognize negative or unhelpful thought and behavior patterns” – can help.
This model can help you identify the shame-filled stories you are telling yourself and then evaluate their effects.
Are they true? How do they affect your life? And how can you release the shame and move forward with compassion?
The steps described above are meant to be repeated, as a habit and a practice.
If you find yourself returning to regret, remember to be optimistic. Almost everybody and everything wants to do its best as a virtuous being.
Have faith that at your core, you want to be the best you can be.
You are inherently good. And by returning to these touchpoints, you are on your way toward becoming more enlightened, more caring, and more compassionate.