Coping with Regret

By Tom Horvath, PhD

image of person coping with regretRegret is the feeling or sense that we did not behave or choose as well as we could have or should have. How many times might we ask ourselves, “why did I ….?” Or, “why didn’t I…?” Not only is it impossible to live life without regrets (who does not make mistakes?), regret appears to be quite common. One study suggested that we might regret nearly 1/3 of our decisions. It makes sense, then, instead of trying to avoid regret, to turn our attention toward coping with regret.

Two Types of Regret

There seem to be two main types of regret. You might regret falling short on responsibilities to others. When you realize the problem, it may be easy enough to correct your behavior or make amends. On the other hand, do you make a similar effort when you fall short on acting on your ideals and goals? Unresolved regret is more likely to arise from not pursuing your ideals and goals, than on falling short on your responsibilities. Long-term we tend to regret more what we did not do, than what we did.

How to Cope with Regret Now?

Can we turn it to good use, rather than becoming lost in regret, guilt, and shame? Here are some ideas: Rather than run from regret, accept it. Accepting it will give you the opportunity to learn from it. Rather than taking an “if only” perspective, can you develop a “this time” or “next time” perspective? Many decisions or choices we regret will come around again, in some form or other.

Rather than just thinking about how (stupid, ignorant, ridiculous, immoral) you were, focus also on the situation you were in. Would someone else, given that specific situation and its details, and your own history and sensitivities to different stressors, make a similar decision? What are you learning about yourself? Watch out for all-or-none thinking. A decision that was not the greatest was also probably not the worst. Making decisions, experiencing consequences, and learning through that process is how we become our mature adult selves.

If you or a loved one could use some help in coping with regret, our individual therapy option may be a good fit. Please don’t hesitate to reach out – you don’t have to navigate this alone.