Five Steps to Deal with Regret
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | April 25, 2019
We regret missed opportunities, harsh words, and stupid behaviors. Our regrets can foster change or damage self-esteem.
Regret is a feared emotion. The past creeps into the present, painting our existence as flawed. The ruminating mind replays the past to exhaustion, depressing the soul and damaging the self. When an emotion has this much disruptive power, it’s no surprise that regret is feared. The positive thinking movement suggests we rid our minds of this unnecessary disturbance, coloring the darkness with brighter hopes and dreams. But emotions—all of them—have a purpose. Regret is a corrective emotion—an internal alarm pushing for change. When we embrace regret (softly and briefly), we stimulate healthy change, growing from the wisdom of the past, and improving our lives with stronger relationships and a healthy openness to our humanity.
While regret typically targets social interactions (a social emotion), it also frets over actions missed or taken without the need of an attached other. Others magnify the pangs of regret. The emotion helps us walk the tightrope of serving our needs while still acknowledging others.
But emotions—all of them—have a purpose. Regret is a corrective emotion—an internal alarm pushing for change.
Social callousness bonds the three non-clinical personality types of the Dark Triad (narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy). These personalities exhibit little or no regret. Without the corrective nature of this regret, the dark-triad personalities languish in society, stealing well-being from others, surviving only as parasites, remaining lost in their dark and lonely worlds. Society can only support a small percentage of people that take while failing to give.
More on Dark Triad Personalities
Regret is sorrow or disappointment over something we did or did not do in the past.
When well-meaning authors, bloggers and wellness coaches suggest emptying our minds of regret, without providing a constructive path to achieve this end, they may unintentionally lead followers astray, suggesting disconnection from guiding emotions (see the Emotional Guidance System). rather than connect. We may soothe the emotions by escaping into the narcissistic self, but relief through deception has a high cost.
We protect our delicate egos from the flows of strong emotions (such as regret) with defenses. These protections, often in the form of denials and justifications, have costs and benefits. Unmitigated regret can be tormenting. Every evening is an adventure of embarrassment and anger as unrelenting thoughts dissect each conversation, reaction, and expression, seeking weakness, and magnify discovered imperfections. We need escapes from these pernicious thought villains. However, mindless justifications only draw us deeper into disaster, blocking our ability to identify errors and take constructive steps to improve. Our blindness distorts surrounding circumstances and cripples the ability to clearly assess circumstances, consider the facts and make an accurate prediction.
Justifications prevent letting go of bad habits, implementing new healthy habits, or taking responsibility for hurtful action. We must learn from our mistakes; and the only way to do this is to accept and own the behavioral slips. Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson wrote in their classic book on self-justification, “Without self-justification, we might be left standing emotionally naked, unprotected, in a pool of regrets and losses.” (2015, Location 2890). However, they concluded that the clearer perspective of honest acceptance of our flaws, “no matter how painful,” could bring the peace of self-acceptance.
Joseph Burgo in his work on self-defense mechanisms is more direct. “By diverting or misdirecting the expression of some of our strongest passions, our defense mechanisms often lead us to act in ways that don’t get us what we truly need; instead, they may be self-defeating or even self-destructive” (2012).
Our prisons and criminal justice system are full of those that are convinced their hurtful actions were justified. They excuse their objectionable actions by appealing to desirable characteristics of honor and fairness. They normalize cruelty while ignoring the tremendous cost to others. "No regrets" is their motto.
We Make Mistakes
We live in an imperfect world. We try to refrain from impulsive and miscalculated actions that lead to regret; but even the most cautious routinely have lapses in judgement and self-control. These actions supply countless flows of fodder for regret. The Dalai Lama gives thoughtful direction to balance the emotional burdens of regret without the heavy overwhelm of needless guilt. In response to a question about his regret, he said, “I didn’t get rid of it. It’s still there. But even though that feeling of regret is still there, it isn’t associated with a feeling of heaviness or a quality of pulling me back. It would not be helpful to anyone if I let that feeling of regret weigh me down, be simply a source of discouragement and depression with no purpose or interfere with going on with my life to the best of my ability. (Cutler, 2009, p.161)
The Dalai Lama’s example teaches us that we can wholly accept ourselves even with flaws. Regret doesn’t need to be denied—just managed. We can regret without being self-destructive. We can recognize lapses in judgment without condemnation. We can respond emotionally and not be overly-emotional. We feel the regret and continue moving forward with our lives to the best of our ability.
Regret doesn’t need to be denied—just managed. We can regret without being self-destructive.
Our Response to Regret is Critical
David Reynolds, in his book Constructive Living, suggests that action is the key. “The sooner your attention shifts to responsible behavior, the sooner the feelings will fade” (1984). Reynolds agrees with the Dalai Lama; accept the emotion and continue living to the best of your ability.
For some, sensitivities from childhood intrude, leaving the nagging feelings of regret continually stabbing for attention, unwilling to quietly reside in the quiet recesses of the minds. Nathaniel Branden provides a more detailed path to assist for those struggling with maladies of thought. He suggests directing thoughts towards a curious but dispassionate examination of the facts. He reminds that bending the facts to force something that is wrong to appear as if is right serves little purpose.
“I can condemn some action I have taken and still have compassionate interest in the motives that prompted it. I can still be a friend to myself. This has nothing to do with alibiing, rationalizing, or avoiding responsibility. After I take responsibility for what I have done, I can go deeper—into the context. A good friend might say to me, “This was unworthy of you. Now tell me, what made it feel like a good idea, or at least a defensible one?” This is what I can say to myself.” (1995. P.94)
A Five-Step Plan of Action to Deal with Regret
Branden outlines a five-step plan of action as part of a healthy response to regret:
We must own responsibility for our action. We must accept the full reality, without softening the impact through disowning or avoidance. “We own, we accept, we take responsibility.”
Seek to Understand
We seek to better understand the circumstances, our motivations, our beliefs, and contributing feelings. We do this compassionately.
Acknowledge Hurt We Caused
If others are involved, we acknowledge clearly our acceptance of the action to the person or persons we have harmed. We acknowledge their pain. We attune to the emotions of their experience.
Take Corrective Action
We take any corrective action available to make amends or minimize the harm.
Commit to Change
We firmly commit to behaving differently in the future. (Braden, 1995).
Hurtful Responses to Regret
To minimize our involvement, overlook the hurt caused, and apologize while softening guilt with excuses, isn’t healthy regret. This attitude suggests we want freedom from the discomfort without taking responsibility for the action. We try to serve our ego and others. “Forgive me,” we plead, “I only did it because…” This half-baked acknowledgement doesn’t attune to the hurt caused or satisfy our need for deeper personal examination. These mistakes will likely be repeated. The contaminants remain, continuing to pollute our life and relationships.
Seneca Taught that life is divided into three periods, “that which has been, that which is, that which will be.” He warned that many people fail to look backward, fearful of the vices and flaws they will discover. “And yet,” he continued, “this is the part of our time that is sacred and set apart, put beyond the reach of all human mishaps, and removed from the dominion of Fortune, the part which is disquieted by no want, by no fear, by no attacks of disease; this can neither be troubled nor be snatched away—it is an everlasting and unanxious possession.” (Bradley, 2017).
The past is the vessel into which we pour our now. The past gives the present context and structure for understanding. Without an open and honest reflection on the past, the present has no form or substance. We need the past to create order in the present.
We embrace regret not because it is enjoyable but because it brings clarity to our existence and is the substance that forms our futures. We only learn from mistakes that we take time to honestly examine. Regret serves as the whistle, warning something needs examining. Our openness to these emotional cues creates vulnerability but also an opportunity for clarity that can build a foundation for wisdom, giving insights with potential to strengthen bonds and improve our lives.
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Bradley, G (2017) A Better Human: The Stoic Heart, Mind, and Soul. Bradley Publishing Inc
Branden, N (1995) The Six Pillars of Self-Esteem: The Definitive Work on Self-Esteem by the Leading Pioneer in the Field. Bantam; Reprint edition
Burgo, J. (2012) Why Do I Do That?: Psychological Defense Mechanisms and the Hidden Ways They Shape Our Lives. New Rise Press
Cuttler, H. (2009) The Art of Happiness, 10th Anniversary Edition: A Handbook for Living. Riverhead Books; Anniversary edition
Reynolds, D. K. (1984). Constructive Living. University of Hawaii Press
Tavris, C. and Aronson, E. (2015). Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts. Mariner Books; Revised, New edition edition