Frank Sinatra famously crooned that he had a few regrets, though they were “too few to mention.” Some people aren’t as lucky as Ol’ Blue Eyes and are saddled with more than a few regrets—ones that affect their day-to-day lives in negative ways.
Regret is a more complicated feeling than it appears on the surface. “It’s a bundle of feelings. [People can feel] sad, angry, or grief-stricken,” says author Amy Morin, LCSW. “It’s the thought that all of your problems are because you did or didn’t do something, even though there’s no proof your life would be better.”
It seems that when we regret a decision, we imagine an alternate universe where everything goes exactly as they planned (and live happily ever after, of course), though life is rarely as simple as our imagination makes it out to be.
Morin says regret can also occur as a way of punishing ourselves. “Sometimes regret’s a way to say, ‘I don’t deserve to be happy,’” she says. “‘If I keep beating myself up for this, then I’ll stay stuck.’ But it’s a subconscious thing, I don’t think most people think, ‘I want to stay sad.’”
When people are repeatedly regretful about the past, it can seem like the cycle is never-ending. Morin offers up these tips to move past that feeling:
It’s one thing to ruminate on the past and problem solve what happened, Morin says. If you ask yourself what went wrong, and figure out ways to make sure it won’t happen again, it could be helpful. But rehashing something in your mind repeatedly often doesn’t solve anything. She notes that very few people say, “‘I sat around for three hours regretting all the decisions in my life, and then I went out and changed everything.’” Instead, Morin recommends dedicating a finite amount of time to think about what happened, and then move on to something else.
If you’ve ever talked to a friend or family member who’s gone through a similar problem as you, you’ve likely felt empathy for them. Morin notes that “it can be healing for people to say, ‘I’ve been there and made that mistake, and I want to help others through their tough times, and maybe prevent them from going down the same road I did.’”
In the movie “Forrest Gump”, the title character invests early in Apple and makes a fortune. It’s easy to think if we were as smart as Forrest (in that one respect), we also could’ve been millionaires. Morin cautions against that type of thinking: “There’s no evidence that if you had a million dollars that you’d be happier or have a better life. You’d have gone down a different path, but it’s not necessarily a better one.” When you’re not busy romanticizing the past, you can focus on the present moment and be grateful for what you have right in front of you. The past can’t be changed no matter how much we think about it but much can be done in the present.
Morin thinks the “no regrets” adage is a bit absurd. “I think it’s healthy to have some regrets,” she says. “It’s okay to be able to say that you made a mistake.” She notes that it can be helpful to acknowledge your regret and think about what you’ve learned since that time. “It’s helpful to understand how you live a life that’s better than before,” Morin says. “You don’t have to be perfect—just try to be better than you were.”