Regrets are human, we all have them. If not managed carefully, regrets can cause self-loathing, anxiety and depression. What to do, when we struggle with regrets?
Some regrets last long and cause deep sorrow. With others we can deal in a 'matter of fact' way.
A lot of the changes we make come from lessons we learn. But sometimes regrets can make us feel stuck and block us from going anywhere.
We may be sorry for what we have (not) done or said.
We feel disappointed, ashamed, guilty, remorseful, embarrassed, angry or hopeless.
There are many types of regrets including :
Things did not go our way because we took a wrong turn, or were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was not premeditated and happened without much thought. Yet, depending on what happened, these peripheral regrets can still be powerful.
Relationships, work, health, the life choices we make, these all underpin our foundation: our sense of self, purpose and view on life, our safety, wellbeing and happiness. Sorrow over wrong choices made in any of these areas can run deep.
Regrets and Age
The older we get, the more unhappy outcomes and turns in our life there may be. And with that, the more persistent fundamental regrets get. They shape our life and who we are.
With age many of us develop a greater sense of time. The time we have to shape some fundamentals of our life is getting shorter and we have less time to enjoy them.
(By the way: Achieving positive change does not have to take long. Youth may be overrated. Does quality or quantity matter? Just some thoughts ...)
Regrets and Death
These are situations when we can no longer explain, do or undo, say sorry or make peace with another who has died. That opportunity has gone, for good. But that is not to say, we cannot make peace with ourselves.
Similarly, we may be facing our own mortality and realise, that some things will never happen for us. It is a sad loss. There's no two ways about it.
Are Regrets Helpful?
Regretting what we did (not) do goes hand in hand with our awareness that actions have consequences. It can be a sign of our conscience.
What we do about it, that's what matters.
Feeling the pain and remorse can be responsible, but unhelpful if not followed up with appropriate action.
Why do some regrets hurt more than others?
You may agree, that some disappointments and mistakes are easier to rationalise than others. The difference is about the level of 'emotional pull' these regrets may have:
- those related to loss and death
- those where not a lot else can make them better or undo them
- those that have shaped a long period of our life
Those are the kinds of regrets, we may be able to rationalise really well. Yet, they can cause an intense, almost existential, pain, that can be very powerful and deeply affect the way we feel.
How to handle regrets
Regrets can be slippery, seductive and convincing.
Regrets and disappointments can have the power to turn our world into a bleak place, with little hope, self respect or trust. Then, shame and defeatism rule.
Regrets should not rule us.
Acting on regrets, responsibly and fairly towards others and most of all towards ourselves, that's what matters.
If regrets keep coming back or hit us hard out of nowhere, then this can be a sign that
a) we are going through a difficult patch, which may make us vulnerable to negative thoughts and feelings, or
b) the sense of disappointment is related to an event in our life, that we have not yet dealt with properly.
In that way, feeling regretful can be an important sign of what might be going on, and that there is something we need to deal with.
Contrary to popular belief, letting go of regrets in a responsible way, is not the easy way out.
It is an important part of self care, requires self reflection and facing some uncomfortable truths, especially the fact that we are fallible and can make mistakes, even when we could have known better.
If you notice you are stuck in your regrets, then try and have a word in your ear. Try to remind yourself, that you did the best you could. And sometimes we mess up. We need to accept that.
Next time you are in a regretful mood, pay attention to your body. The lump in your throat, the tightness in your stomach and sometimes tears of anger or sadness? That's how it can go for me.
And what do you think about then? The present, the future or the past?
While understanding, accepting and learning from the past is essential, regrets can keep us imprisoned in the past. Being stuck there, is not helpful and often not fair to our abilities and potential.
Regrets are human, we need to learn to live with them in peace - side by side.
Karin Sieger is a psychotherapist and writer. For more information and articles visit KarinSieger.com. If you like this article then you may also like Karin's latest interview on growing resilient during dark times (including the emotional impact of cancer).