How to Manage the Stress of Regret

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Rumination can take a heavy toll; these techniques can be effective in lifting the weight. AlexanderNovikov/ Getty Images

 Many people face regrets in their lives, both major and minor.  "Maybe I shouldn't have had that last piece of pizza." "Maybe I shouldn't have married him."  "Maybe I shouldn't have been so selfish."  "Maybe..."  It's common and healthy, actually, to go over our past decisions and assess which ones worked out and which ones didn't. It helps us to grow, it helps us to make better decisions in the future, and it helps us to develop a better understanding of ourselves, others, and the world around us to recognize what has worked out and what hasn't.

 And when we acknowledge our mistakes and change course because of what we learn from them, we hone our ability to decide what we want and don't want in life, and we are generally better able to make decisions more in line with our needs next time.  This is how regret is supposed to work: it's a signal that's there to teach us something. 

Sometimes regret gets out of hand, however, and turns into obsession, rumination, or a trigger to beat ourselves up.  We can regret actions we had no way of knowing would turn out in disaster.  We can begin to doubt our own judgement and abilities rather than honing them.  We can become highly stressed if we let our regrets take over.  It's important to know when to let go and forgive ourselves.  And it's important to know how.

If you find yourself mired in regret, there are some simple steps you can take to get yourself out of that uncomfortable place.  The following, either on their own or together, can help you to get over regret by gaining the lessons and moving on.

Focus On Gains

In most situations, even if there were losses and frustrations, there were also gains.  If you made a poor decision or weren't operating at your best, chances are you still gained something from the situation, even if it wasn't what you had hoped for. 

Focus on Growth

Virtually every challenge can be a learning experience.

 (Wasn't that what parents of a generation ago used to say all the time, that our challenges "build character?")  If you had to deal with some difficult challenges, chances are you became stronger from the experience.  If you needed to be "rescued" by your friends, at least you now know who you can count on.  Focus on areas of growth that come from exercising the strength that a difficult situation requires, and it's easier to let go of regret.

Focus on Forgiveness

If you can't find positives in the situation you regret (or the positives feel too minimal to remember), you may want to simply focus on letting go and forgiving yourself, as well as others in your life.  Not every wrong can be righted, but we always have more chances to do our best next time.  Learning to forgive yourself is a way to develop strength as well, and it may make it easier for you to forgive others in the future.

Get Help If You Need It

Don't forget to ask for help if regret feels overwhelming.  Talk to your doctor or therapist if talking to a good friend doesn't work.

 If regrets bring you to find the support you need in your life, this is something that can strengthen you for the future as well.  It's important to know how to let go.

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