In the early years of my career as a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist I often struggled to find a way to help some of my clients cope with their thoughts and feelings of regret: “If only I had recognized my cheating boyfriend for what he really is,” or “I wish I’d been a better and more patient mother to my son,” and “If only I’d studied harder I would have done better in life.”
Over time I have found that one very effective strategy is to ask key questions. These help move people toward thinking and behaving differently about their regrets.
I often start with this question:
“Have you noticed how the excessive regret affects what you do and say?”
Responses typically indicate the negative influence of regret, such as losing confidence, not wanting to be around people, and being more self-deprecating than necessary.
I then ask these questions to explore a regretful situation further:
1. “Could I have acted any differently considering the particular stage in my life and the information or experiences I had until that point in my life?”
If you were to ask yourself this question, you will probably realize that you did what any person in your shoes would have done given your background, circumstance, and the information you had.
2. “Was it only me or did anything or anyone else contribute to my mistake?”
I have always found that people who are drowning in regret take complete responsibility for their mistakes. But they don’t take into consideration any other factors that contributed to the problem.
3. “Was there anything I did right in the situation that I regret so much?”
This may not be easy to answer. I’ve often had to explore the situation more closely to help my clients recognize what they had done right.
4. “As a result of this regretful experience, have I changed the way I behave and respond to similar situations?”
Most likely you’ll find that you have learned some important lessons in life, and that you are better off as a result of the very experiences that you regret.
5. “Is there anything you can do now that will make any difference about how you think and feel about a situation you regret?”
This may help you take some corrective actions with regard to what you’ve regretted for a long time, such as expressing your regret to someone you hurt. It can also make you reevaluate your current choices and take actions move toward goals you regret not having moved toward earlier.
It’s OK to be an imperfect person because that’s what we all are.
Excessive regret is often linked to not being OK about making mistakes. So the solution to not experiencing regret is to not be perfect. It’s OK to make mistakes simply because it is impossible for humans not to make mistakes and experience some regret.
Suma Chand, MPhil, PhD, is a clinical psychologist specializing in cognitive-behavior therapy. She is an associate professor in the Department of Neurology & Psychiatry, School of Medicine, Saint Louis University.