All of us have regrets at some time. It may be spending too much time in a problematic relationship, buying something you realize is not what you thought it would be, wearing a tie that clashes with your jacket, or eating too much dessert. For me, it was buying Lehman Brothers stock before the company crashed. We all find ourselves at times caught in an endless loop of negative self-recrimination -- "I could have, should have, would have." Sometimes the negative voice lasts a few minutes, sometimes a few days, and sometimes years. Are you stuck in your regrets? You are not alone.
We would have to be immune to learning from experience to say that we never regret something we have done. After all, isn't it useful to learn from our mistakes? It makes sense to say, "I realize now that it was a mistake," and then move on to present and future positive plans and behavior. That's like driving over a bump in the road and saying, "I wish that hadn't happened," and then driving on. Would it make sense to get out of your car, yell at the pavement, and hit yourself over the head with a tire iron? You can acknowledge a mistake or mishap without drowning in the quicksand of continuous regret. But it may be hard to pull away from your regrets. They keep nagging away at us, reminding us of how foolish we have been.
How can we move beyond the moment of regret so that we don't get stuck? Let's look at some simple steps that can free you so that you can get on with your life.
- Is there any advantage to continuing your regret? Some people think that by persisting in their regret they will teach themselves a lesson, motivate themselves to do better, and become better at making decisions. But how long must you beat yourself up with regrets to learn not to eat that soufflé or buy Lehman Brothers stock? And think of all the disadvantages of your regret -- you can't enjoy your life, it makes you depressed, angry, and self-critical, and you have a hard time moving on to the next step. Plus, you may be boring other people by repeating your endless regrets.
- Set aside regret time. You don't want to spend morning, noon, and night entertaining your regrets. Just because a regret shows up in your head, it doesn't mean that you need to drop everything and have a discussion with it. Set aside 20 minutes when you can just focus on your regrets, write them down at other times, and put them off until your regret time. By making an appointment with your regrets you can choose to push them off until later. Usually, these regrets will seem less important when you get to the appointment with them.
- Ask yourself what the lesson is for the future. If you think your regrets will teach you something, then write down exactly what you can do differently in the future. For example, it may be that you can learn not to eat those tempting desserts, not to stay in a relationship when it is no longer rewarding, or not to buy stocks in a company on the verge of bankruptcy. If you can write down the lesson, then continuing with the regret is useless.
- Accept that making decisions may lead to some bad outcomes. If you are an investor, you will lose some. If you pursue relationships, some won't work out. If you diet, you are likely to have setbacks. You can't make decisions without accepting some negative outcomes. The best hitter in baseball is likely to miss getting on base most of the time. Mistakes are experiments that provide information. Some work, some don't. But if you made no decisions, then you wouldn't be able to do anything. Accept that mistakes come with the territory of making decisions. You are not perfect, and you don't need to be.
- You can't know everything. One woman regretted her relationship with a man because she found out he cheated on her. "I should never have trusted him," she said. But you can't know what you don't know. There was no evidence of his dishonesty when she got involved with him. She went with the information she had. All of our decisions are made at one point in time with the information that we have at that time. We may experience "hindsight bias," thinking that we knew all along, but we didn't and we can't. You only know what you know at that time. Accepting your limitations doesn't mean that you are not good at making decisions. It simply means that you have to live in a world of uncertainty.
- Don't try to rescue regrets. A lot of times we try to turn our "mistakes" into something positive by staying in a bad situation and trying to make it better. Sometimes that can work. Sometimes a problematic marriage can improve. But if your goal is to rescue your mistakes so that you can say, "See, it wasn't a mistake, it worked out," then you are risking getting stuck in the past. You might say, "I can't walk away, I put so much into this job, relationship, this project." Well, you may end up throwing good money after bad money. This is what we call "sunk costs" -- you already threw the money away, the tie is in the closet, the past has already happened. Ask yourself this question: "If I knew how this was turning out -- how I feel now -- would I make the same decision again?" If you lost the tie that you hate, would you go out and buy the same tie again? If not, let it go. It's a sunk cost. Down the drain.
- Focus on future possibilities. Good decision making focuses on future positive outcomes. Even if you made a mistake -- even if it was an incredibly stupid mistake -- then the rational and reasonable thing to do is to focus on how you can make your life better now and in the future. You can bemoan the loss in your stock portfolio, or stare at the tie in your closet, or review all the terrible things in the relationship that is over. Or you can focus on making your life better now. The great thing about making your life better now is that you actually have control over what happens now. You can actually do something. Unless you have a time machine, you can't go back and change the past.
Keep in mind that good decision making is acknowledging a mistake, learning from it, and making life better in the future. Don't spend your life reviewing past mistakes while the world goes by.
For more by Robert Leahy, Ph.D., click here.
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