The Value of Regret

Regret is an emotion clients often talk about in counselling sessions, especially when experiencing low mood and depression. It is incredibly common in general too. In a survey, only 1% of people said they never look back on their life and wish they’d done things differently.

Regret is a composite emotion involving sadness and shame. It is usually characterised by “if only…” thoughts, where people wish they had made a different decision in the past which they imagine would have led to a better present and brighter future. In this way, regret involves comparing actual circumstances with idealised, imagined circumstances and blaming ourselves for the situation we are currently in. This self-blame can be about our actions or our inactions. Research suggests that, more commonly, we feel regret over our inactions, where we didn’t take a chance that was presented to us.

We often hear that we should be aiming to live a life with no regrets. Whilst, in theory, this may sound lovely, it is unrealistic to think that we could make the best possible decision in every circumstance, leaving us satisfied with all our choices. We frequently have to make decisions without knowing all the factors that will determine how the different options will work out in the future. Research has shown that the more opportunities and choices there are available to us, the higher the potential for regret. Instead of appreciating what we have in our life, we are aware of all the options we didn’t choose, which increases our chances of regret.

As well as it being unrealistic to have no regrets, it is, perhaps surprisingly, undesirable. It is more beneficial if we can see regret, and other negative emotions, as functional and welcome them despite the discomfort they bring initially. Regrets can help us to clarify what we value and lead us towards meaningful action. What we regret the most highlights what we value the most. Regrets can also increase performance and motivate us to correct our behaviour so we don’t keep feeling this negative emotion.

It is important to approach regrets in the right way. Here are some suggestions around how to do this:

  • If you remember a decision from a year or more ago, pay attention to it.
  • Practice acceptance. Accepting regret, as well as other negative emotions, can help to reduce their intensity.
  • Neither dwell in regrets nor ignore them. Instead it is helpful if we can evaluate the behaviour over which we feel regret in isolation, rather than seeing it more globally as representative of who we are as a person. 
  • Treat yourself with kindness rather than contempt. Remind yourself that having regrets is part of our shared humanity, and something we all experience as making some mistakes in life is inevitable.
  • Disclose your regrets. Talk them through with someone you trust or write them down. Putting them into concrete words can help them seem less menacing and begin the process of making sense of them.
  • Draw lessons from your regrets. Use them as a basis to consider what you will care about in 10 years time. Let them guide you to identify what you value most in life.
  • Use your regret to change in the future. Consider how you can change your behaviour to reduce the likelihood of future regrets like this occurring. For example, if you regret a lack of kindness in a particular situation, focus on being kinder from now on.
  • Consider the potential for future regret. Before deciding whether to take an action or not, reflect on which decision is more likely to lead to regret later. However, beware of overthinking and limit how long you spend deliberating to avoid getting stuck in indecision.

I offer counselling in Exeter city centre, Newton Abbot and online. Regret is one of the many things we could explore within this. The initial consultation to find out more is free.

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