What to Do with Feelings of Regret

One of the most frequently experienced emotions is regret. Feelings of regret can stem from looking back on past behaviors and decisions and believing that a better outcome may have occurred if a different choice was made. Topics that seem to elicit the most regret are education, career, romance, parenting, self, and leisure (Newall, Chipperfield, Daniels, Hladkyj, & Perry, 2009; Roese & Summerville, 2005).

When having regret, a person can experience emotional, cognitive, and neurophysiological effects. Regret is often accompanied by other negative emotions such as guilt, disappointment, self-blame, and frustration. In addition, people frequently engage in cognitive exercises trying to understand why they made a poor decision or acted as they did, and what other choices they could have made to reap a better outcome. Moreover, regret activates certain areas of the cortex region of the brain (viz., lateral orbitofrontal, dorsomedial prefrontal).

Researchers differ as to what stimulates regret. Some argue that “opportunity breeds” regret—meaning that regret is strongest under conditions when a “correction” action exists (the “opportunity principle”). For example, many people experience regret over the extent of their education; yet, the opportunity to rectify this “deficit” remains open for most people. It is the availability that spurs regret.

An argument for supporting the “opportunity principle” is that there are few rationalizations that can effectively diminish the “stewing” of regret because actions that can address it are still accessible. Under this theory, feelings of regret will continue until a corrective action is taken (Roese & Summerville, 2005).

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Other researchers, however, believe that feelings of regret are more likely to occur and more prominent under situations when there is no opportunity to rectify the decision or action (Beike, Markman, & Karadogan, 2009). That is, the opportunity that existed before and was not taken advantage of is now lost. It can be argued that age is a factor which can affect available opportunities. Theoretically, education can be obtained at any age; however, it is not as easy for older aged individuals. Similarly, finding romance late in life is more difficult than when one is younger, and the field is more open.

Excuses can be of little help in assuaging the pain of regret when little to no opportunity exists to correct the person’s poor decision or behavior (e.g., because of time or scarce resources). People may berate themselves for letting an opportunity pass by that cannot be obtained later.

Regret can be an aversive emotion impacting life-satisfaction. However, if regret is confronted appropriately, it can have a positive effect. Regret can lead to a retrospective analysis that may help people understand the reason why they thought or acted as they did. At that time, there may have been a specific reason. By making sense of their past thoughts or actions, individuals may:

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  • Feel less pain, remorse, and self-condemnation.
  • Change their thoughts and behavior to that which will now lead to a desired outcome.
  • Learn from their mistakes and incorporate this into their subsequent decisions and actions.

More specifically, what can people do to accentuate the positive and reduce the negative effects of regret? Newall et al., (2009) and Bjälkebring, Västfjäll, Svenson, & Slovic (2016) offer some of the following suggestions:

  • Do not let feelings of regret “eat you up"
    • Engage in self-regulation and do not allow regret to become overwhelming
    • If necessary, suppress the feelings
  • Do not repeat in your mind “if only” thinking
    • Accept what happened and come to terms with it
    • Accept that there are some instances or events that are out of your control
    • Accept that no life can be lived without regrets
  • Do not exaggerate personal responsibility and harbor great self-blame
  • Forecast regret
    • By preparing yourself, it may lessen the surprise and pain
  • Look for the benefits that derive from regret. How did it encourage you to
    • Better understand yourself
    • Make yourself a better person
  • Overcome feelings of regret by doing reparative actions
    • Apologize to those you hurt
    • Do not procrastinate in correcting your poor judgment or action
    • Consider opportunities more fully and take advantage of those you might otherwise have let slip by
  • Instead of focusing on the negative outcomes of regret, be more mindful of how regret has stimulated
    • Learning from experience
    • Growth and positive changes in you

Regret is an emotional mechanism. If one ruminates on lost opportunities, then regret becomes maladaptive and can stymie growth. On the other hand, if regret reminds us that our time is short and that opportunities may be transitory, it helps us strive for a life well-lived.