How to let go of regrets

Lisa Fields 11 January 2018

Regrets, when held onto, are known for leaving people in the past, trapped in an unhappy state. Changing your thought process can free you from feelings of guilt, shame and sorrow

Growing up in southern Germany, Karin Schätzle longed to play the cello, but no one in her small village could teach her. Instead, she learned the recorder and clarinet, and she continued to daydream into adulthood about becoming a cellist. She never sought lessons, though, convinced that she would have needed to learn during childhood to be any good.

Nothing can pervade your thoughts or inspire sleepless nights like the feeling of regret. Maybe you blame yourself for ending an old romantic relationship, making a bad career choice or being too afraid to step outside your comfort zone, like Schätzle.

“What shows up time and time again in a pattern of people’s regrets is that later in life, people tend to think about the things they didn’t do rather than the things that they did,” says Tom Gilovich, a psychology professor at Cornell University in New York. “There are so many things we didn’t do because we were socially afraid.”

That Surprisingly Good-for-You Bad Feeling

Regrets have a tendency to make you feel terrible, but those negative feelings aren’t always harmful. Research shows that initially, regrets help you learn from mistakes. “Those who express regret over a decision they’ve made tend to make a better decision next time,” says Aidan Feeney, a senior psychology lecturer at Queen’s University Belfast. By analysing your situation, you can learn lessons about yourself, make changes going forward and hopefully create better outcomes for yourself next time.

This technique worked for Schätzle when she had a fresh realisation about the cello in her forties: she might have needed to play in her youth if she hoped to play professionally, but that wasn’t her goal. Immediately, she began cello lessons. “I wish I hadn’t waited so long, because I love it,” says Schätzle, now 52. “For a while, I was almost angry with myself, thinking if only I had started earlier, I would now be able to play more difficult pieces—until I realised that, for me, that’s not what the cello is about. It’s about the enjoyment I get out of practising.”

"Older adults who let regrets overpower them can develop mental and physical ailments"

The Harm of Overthinking

What if regrets dominate your thoughts and you don’t (or can’t) take action to resolve them within a reasonable time frame? Unfortunately, these repetitive thoughts may negatively impact your life. “Regret can be a very destructive emotion,” Feeney says. “If you ruminate on countless possibilities that are no longer possible, that can be very damaging.” Picture, for example, a retired woman who wishes that she’d had children instead of just focusing on her career. Such an outcome can’t be changed and the regrets may become unbearable. Older adults who let regrets overpower them can develop mental and physical ailments. “We have shown that regrets are a stronger predictive for depression in older than younger people,” says Carsten Wrosch, psychology professor at Concordia University in Montréal, who studies the impact of regrets across the adult lifespan. “Diseases such as heart disease may more likely be observed. Not immediately, but after five, ten, 20 years.”

Rising Above Regrets

Several strategies can help people disentangle themselves from the powerful grips of their regrets. “One of the primary functions of regret is to correct one’s mistakes,” says Marcel Zeelenberg, social psychology professor at Tilburg University in the Netherlands. “Another function is to make sure that we remember our mistakes and learn from them. For both of these functions, it’s important that regret is painful. Otherwise, it would not motivate.”

Try these tactics:

  • Stop judging the past
    At 13, Paola Tosca was a typical teenager, more interested in socialising with her peers than her parents. When her father died suddenly of a heart attack, Tosca immediately regretted how she’d chosen to spend her time. “Not having enough time to know my father Stefano is my deepest and greatest regret,” says Tosca, now 62, from Grasse, France. “I realised I hadn’t devoted enough time to him.”

    When people think about old decisions, they may mistakenly believe that they made the wrong choice, which can worsen feelings of regret. “We often don’t give ourselves credit for making the best decision,” says Wändi Bruine de Bruin, professor of behavioural decision-making at Leeds University Business School. “You may have different information now than you had back then. If people want to use the regret productively, say, ‘Given what I knew at the time, would I have done anything different?’ ” To deal with her father’s loss over the decades, Tosca, the CEO of a computer company in Grasse and an author, has pushed herself to work hard and live her life to the fullest,  so that he would have been proud. “I built my life on his absence,” she says.  

  • Embrace inaction 
    In her youth, Olivia Steele of London said something to her grandmother that she wishes she could take back. “One year, she made several coffee cakes, and I took it upon myself to tell her that my family and I were a little bored of coffee cake, and could she perhaps make another flavour,” says Steele, 28. “She visibly deflated at my words. She never made a coffee cake again.” As you age, you’re likely to have less power to change circumstances that you regret. Accepting this powerlessness may help you cope. “People have to settle with what they did or didn’t do, because there may not be so many opportunities to turn it around anymore,” Wrosch says. “We have shown—with respect to regret—if they can disengage from undoing the regret, they don’t experience the consequences. Engage in other meaningful activities in life. That can work as an override mechanism.”
  • Seek inner wisdom 
    By age 60, you’ll have tallied significantly more regrets than you had at 20, but they don’t all have the same impact. “The regrets that really get to people are unresolved regrets, things they could never fix,” Bruine de Bruin says. “If you feel like you should have gone to university, you can fix that when you’re relatively young. That can be harder to do when you’re older.”

    Fortunately, many older adults are better equipped to handle their emotions. “They have the wisdom that comes with life experience,” says Pär Bjälkebring, senior psychology lecturer at Gothenburg University in Sweden. “When they encounter a situation a younger person would regret, they can handle it.” For his research, Bjälkebring asked younger and older adults to record their regrets for a week. “The older participants look at regrets in a different way, and try to accept what is happening,” Bjälkebring says. “Over a week, older adults have less regret and use strategies to handle them. They’re more functional.” Other research shows that older people are less overwhelmed by regrets. “When you’re younger, you can get caught up, and the concrete details are shameful,” Gilovich says. “When you get older, you think of it from a broader perspective: ‘Overall, I’ve lived a good life, even though I’ve made some mistakes.’ ”

    "If they can disengage from undoing the regret, they don't experience the consequences "

  • Appreciate your situation
    Research shows that the most common reason for regret is missed opportunity. People fantasise about benefits they believe they’ve missed while ignoring the disadvantages that would have naturally arisen. “Missed opportunities are unrealised better worlds,” Zeelenberg says. “Had one chosen differently, or acted differently, the outcomes would have been better.” Never got that promotion? You likely think about the missed income without considering the extra stress that the position would have brought.

    For more than 30 years, Maiju Kauppila of Helsinki, has worked as a state employee, although her real passion has been social media and marketing. She’s parlayed her enthusiasm for handicrafts and lifestyle blogging into a successful online presence for the past 12 years. “The blog and all of my social media channels have become almost like a second job for me,” says Kauppila, 54, “yet I haven’t dared to abandon my career, even though I certainly could have.” Instead of imagining an alternate reality, focus on the good in your life. “Avoid making comparisons,” Bruine de Bruin says. “Don’t keep asking yourself if you’d be happier with another wife, another house, another job. It undermines the happiness you have. If you do make comparisons, look at what makes you lucky, rather than unlucky. Try to rejoice instead of regret.”

    "People tend to forget inaction—you may have fewer regrets if you act more and avoid things less"

  • Employ optimistic thinking
    Gilovich’s research has found that you can diminish the power of your regrets if you can find something positive in your life that materialised because of the regretted situation. “Rationalise it; identify the silver linings,” Gilovich says. “I shouldn’t have married this person. That was a mistake. But at least I have these great kids, which I wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

    Joann Perahia, 62, of New York, regrets that she didn’t save more money when she was younger, but her silver lining makes her situation more tolerable. “Now that I’m older, there’s no time to get the unearned money back,” she says. “However, I did raise my children without working, and they are wonderful. If I’d gone to work to make that money instead of staying home, I don’t think they’d be as wonderful as they are.”

  • Lead an active life
    People tend to regret inaction more than their actions, so researchers suggest that you may have fewer regrets if you act more and avoid things less. “If you’re trying to decide if you should do it or not and all the reasons are: ‘What would other people think?’, you should do it,” Gilovich says.

    Rudolf Thode, 62, of Offenbüttel, Germany, had always dreamed of flying. But instead of training to be a pilot, he became a busy farmer with a wife who wasn’t supportive of his fantasy. Nevertheless, he found himself drawn to the nearby airfield in Rendsburg whenever he had free time. About 13 years ago, the farmer finally decided to take flying lessons. “What a great feeling to view my farmland from high above,” Thode says. “It would have been a lot better if I’d followed through with my dream when I was in my twenties. What really counts, however, is the fact that it came true at all.”