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 behavior, 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.
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