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Learning from Your Regrets

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By Linda Sapadin, Ph.D

Is there anybody in this world who has not regretted a decision they’ve made or a path they’ve taken? I doubt it. Yet, how people deal with their regrets varies considerably.

  • Some people easily shrug off their regrets; no problem!
  • Others review their regrets, seeking to make amends while resolving to do better next time.
  • Still others are riddled with regret, ruminating about what they could have or should have done differently.

Psychologically, the best way to deal with regrets is to acknowledge what you did wrong and learn from the experience. This is best done by treating yourself with respect and kindness. If, in contrast, you disrespect yourself (what an idiot I am, how cowardly I was, how could I have done what I did), you will learn little.

We all make mistakes. The best of us learn from them, becoming a wiser, stronger, better person. Here’s how:

  • Reflect on what happened. Consider the circumstances surrounding your mistake. Were you feeling pressured to do what you did? Were you lacking in important information at the time? Were there stressors that impaired your judgment? Were you feeling vulnerable, without support or love? Were your actions emotionally driven, rather than well thought out? When you take the time to answer these questions, you will realize how complex seemingly simple decisions are.

    An example: Julie’s personality had two distinct sides: she was a rebel and a pleaser. The pleaser part won out when she married the first guy her parents approved of. It wasn’t until 3 years later that she recognized that the ‘right’ guy for her parents was the ‘wrong’ guy for her.

  • Reflect on what you can do to move past your mistakes. If you can’t undo your mistake, you may still be able to take some action. If someone was hurt by your decision, you can apologize and make amends. If that’s impossible, you can do good in this world to make up for what you did wrong. Good actions often have a ripple effect, expanding beyond the moment.

    An example: Mike was drinking that awful night. The crash came so suddenly, he didn’t even remember it. He just remembered waking up in the hospital, aching in every part of his body. But that pain was nothing compared to the pain he felt when he learned that he had killed his best friend. How could he go on? No way could he undo that night. It was. It is. And it will always be. Now Mike needed to find out how he could live. First, he had to ask for forgiveness from his friend’s family. Then, he had to forgive himself. Then, he had to do good in this world as a penance for his grievous mistake. Then, he simply did good in this world because that was the type of person he had become.

  • Use your regrets to grow in a new direction. If you feel stuck, believing that there’s nothing you can do to change matters, let things be. But do take a step forward in a different direction. Doesn’t matter how big that step is, just take it.

    An example: Since he was a little kid, Rick’s family expected him to go into the family business after high school. And he did. Now 15 years later he’s earning a nice income but he’s not sure it’s been worth it. Rick says, “Many days I wonder what I would have become if I didn’t take the easy way out.” If Rick wants to explore who he could have been if he hadn’t just followed in his father’s footsteps, he doesn’t have to quit his life. Instead, he can consider how he could use his creativity to take the business in a new direction. Or, to blaze a new trail in a different area of life, like writing or painting.

  • Now what about you? If your regrets don’t just visit you from time to time but have taken up residence in your brain, you know that it’s time to let go. Yes, there’s a time to regret and a time to let go. A time to reflect on the past and a time to live life forward. Learn from your regrets. Make better decisions. Find deeper meaning in your life.

    Copyright © 2016: Linda Sapadin, Ph.D
    Linda Sapadin is a psychologist and personal coach in private practice who specializes in helping people enrich their lives, enhance their relationships and overcome self-defeating patterns of behavior. For more information about her work, contact her by email or visit her website at PsychWisdom.
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