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9 Small ways to let go of regret (even when it’s hard)

If you’re wondering how to let go of regret—and if that’s even a worthwhile goal—trust me, you’re not alone. Especially after a year of such loss and change, it’s tempting to look back and think of all the things you could’ve done differently. Whether your regrets are large—like choosing to turn down a scholarship in your senior year of high school—or involve day-to-day interactions where you’ve said something unkind, figuring out how to learn from and then let go of regret is beneficial.

“There are people who say, ‘I live my life with no regrets,’ but if we unpack it a little bit, I think we will recognize that pretty much everybody has [them],” Neal Roese, Ph.D., a social psychologist, and professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, tells SELF.

Regret is a negative emotion that hinges on counterfactual thinking, Dr. Roese explains. Counterfactual thinking essentially means that we look back and concoct imaginary scenarios to convince ourselves things could be better. If, for instance, you wish you’d put more effort into your last relationship, regret might make you think that your actions alone could’ve fixed everything, or you might come to a wild conclusion that you’ll never find anyone else. “Our brains are really good at elaborating on or constructing these alternative worlds in which we would have done different things,” Dr. Roese explains. “And a lot of this really is based on our desires, our wants, or needs. It's basically a reflection of us wanting to get somewhere.”

Even though regrets are part of being alive, they can outlive their usefulness. Why? Wanting to get somewhere can be a starting point for growth and change, but it can also keep us in a cycle of negativity and even despair. So if you’re struggling with how to let go of regret, you’ll find nine small things you can do to create a little space between you and your regrets below.

1. List the lessons you’ve learned, then read them when you need that reminder.

Often the people who say “I don’t have regrets” aren’t in deep denial (though they might be). There’s a chance that they’ve been able to use any experience of regret to learn from their behaviour, Robert Allan, Ph.D., L.M.F.T., emotionally focused therapy trainer and assistant professor of couple and family therapy at the University of Colorado, Denver, tells SELF. In fact, Dr. Roese says that regret is an instrumental part of goal setting because it’s a moment to think about how you can avoid a similar outcome in the future. So, if you’re drowning in what you could’ve done or should’ve said, consider listing what you’ve learned and how you’ve changed instead. Or, if all you can see is how life stinks right now as a result of your mishap, you can use the present moment to find the lesson. Instead of thinking, Ugh, everything would be different right now, ask yourself what the disappointment, anger, or regret you’re feeling right now is teaching you. You can’t change the past, but your feelings might have solid advice on what you can do differently in the future.

2. Rethink your “best-case scenario.”

“Regret focuses on what you could have done differently,” Dr. Roese explains. The truth is that you don’t know that everything would’ve been better if you’d made a different decision. If you regret not saving more money, for instance, it’s helpful to steer yourself away from the thought that “everything would be perfect if I’d stuck to a savings plan.” Sure, savings might come in handy right now, but other factors might’ve come along to land you in the same spot. Maybe, even if it’s not clear yet, a few aspects of your life actually worked out better because you splurged a little more. So instead of creating a scenario that overemphasizes positive thinking, Dr. Roese suggests you think about how a different choice also might have impacted you negatively.

“This is just another way of gaining context and perspective, because as much as any one moment might have gone better if you tried a little bit harder, there are other reasons why it might have gone worse,” Dr. Roese explains, adding that even among the choices you regret, there’s probably evidence that you’ve done something brilliant along the way. And, if you’re having trouble thinking of one single smart choice amidst your regret, try to remember the first tip: Maybe this particular situation came along so that you learn the lesson before the stakes are even higher. If you’re reading this, there’s still time to change course.

3. Try to forgive yourself.

Regrets are an indication that you have personal standards for how you live your life, but part of being a human being involves occasionally falling short of those expectations, Dr. Roese explains. When this happens, you probably have to do the work of forgiving yourself.

There’s no magic solution to make you immediately okay with whatever you regret, but by processing and forgiving yourself for any perceived slights, you can begin to let go. We have a bunch of good tips if you need to forgive yourself, but the first thing you can do is imagine you’re talking to a friend (instead of yourself). This might help you unlock self-compassion so you can move beyond regret.

4. Try something new to distract yourself.

Our regrets can become ruminations when we feel stuck in our present circumstances, Dr. Roese says. If the pandemic has you sitting home thinking (and overthinking) about regretful situations, Dr. Roese suggests trying something new. This doesn’t necessarily have to be anything dramatic. “The remedy is to break out of your routine in some way to try new things,” Dr. Roese says. Consider turning your regular walk into an adventure by going a different way or ordering something online that you ordinarily wouldn’t. Breaking up monotony helps distract you from ruminations, but there’s an added benefit: Dr. Allan says finding small ways to surprise yourself and try new things can help you “believe in your capacity to learn and grow.” And when you believe that there’s more life to live (and mistakes to make), there’s potential to create space between you and regret.

5. Make amends if you need to.

Much like forgiving yourself might bring a little bit of peace, sometimes your regrets involve other people. When possible, it’s appropriate to apologize and make amends. If, for instance, you regret not visiting your family when you had the chance (i.e., before the pandemic), you can call them up, apologize for being MIA, and make a commitment to see them when it’s safe.

Other times, however, it might not be appropriate or even possible to reach out. Regrets might make us think it’s reasonable to contact our ex from middle school to apologize. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, but check in with yourself first. “It might not be appropriate to contact the person 30 years later,” Dr. Allan says. If you suspect that someone will genuinely benefit from your delayed apology, it might be appropriate to reach out. If you’re the only one who will walk away feeling better, it might be best to process this independently.

6. Write down your regrets (then fact-check them).

It might seem counterintuitive, but if you find yourself thinking about your regrets it can help to write about them. As SELF previously reported, writing about your negative thoughts gives you a chance to fact-check them. Would your life truly be better if you’d gone to a different college? Would everything be different if you’d made your flight last year? Writing it all down allows you to bring some skepticism and context to your personal story.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that you write down your college regrets, fact-check them, and decide that your life could be totally different. Well, specificity is on your side. If you feel like you would’ve been more confident, you can work on building that now. Or, if you think a better education would’ve set you up for a different professional experience, maybe it’s time to explore a few ways you can take courses in the future. Whether you come to realize that your regret is unfounded or not, it’s important to remember that you are way more complex than one regret. “It's not your entire life,” Dr. Roese explains.

7. Try grief journaling.

Regret is, in some ways, a type of grief. Often, you’re mourning expectations you had for yourself or a future that may never materialize. It’s also possible that your regrets are tied to losing someone close to you. In those cases, a grief journal might help you process your emotions. You can use your journal to write down everything you’re feeling. But you can also write down other difficult situations or mistakes you’ve made and how you worked through them. Instead of focusing on what you think is true about your regret (i.e., “I’ll never be the same”), you can list questions about the future: What do I need from this moment? I can’t change the past, but what do I want to do with the future? You can also free write and, in time, look over your writing to see how your relationship to regret has changed.

8. Find other people with similar regrets.

Listen, regret is a basic human emotion, and even though some people might say, “I don’t live my life with regrets,” there’s a chance that people might have faced what you’re feeling. So, instead of focusing on your own situation, see if your friends might have gone through something similar or if you can find stories and support groups focused on people who’ve worked through circumstances like yours. Regrets tend to be myopic, Dr. Roese says, so talking to other people and listening to other experiences can expand your view beyond the present moment.

9. Talk to someone if your thoughts are impacting your mood.

Ruminating on regrets can exacerbate symptoms of mental health issues like depression, Dr. Roese says, so if your regrets feel insurmountable, if they are triggering depressive or anxious thoughts, or you’re beginning to feel overwhelmed, reach out to a mental health professional for support. Working directly with a therapist can help you unpack your emotions. If you’re already working with a therapist or you’re looking for peer support, you can also reach out to people in online communities so that you know you’re not alone. Because you’re not—regret really is part of being human.

This originally appeared on SELF US | Patia Braithwaite

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