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Taking Control of Regret

We would all like to make the right choices and decisions all of the time, but we don’t. It’s just not realistic or possible. Inevitably everyone will occasionally take the wrong path, miss an opportunity, or say something we shouldn’t have. And later on we regret it. 

Regrets are a normal and frustrating part of life. They come in all sizes and often daily. But there’s a big difference between regretting your choice of latte for the day and regretting your choice of career or a lifetime’s worth of parenting decisions. Unfortunately, for some people the larger regrets we experience can become all-consuming and cause psychological problems. 

Problems Caused By Unresolved Regrets

Regrets are often accompanied by uncomfortable feelings like guilt, disappointment and sadness. If left unresolved they can lead to a very unhealthy state of mind. They may play on a loop through the minds of affected individuals and become focal points that dampen happiness and the ability to progress through life and have new, positive experiences. As a result, people who focus on things they regret are susceptible to developing problems with depression, anxiety, or both.

Focusing on regrets can also lead to extreme reactions to the things or situations that caused the regret in the first place. These reactions can range from complete avoidance of people or things that remind you of the regret, to obsessive attention to those things in an effort to fix things. For instance, if someone regrets the decisions they made as a parent they may later try to rectify those perceived mistakes by becoming overly involved in their children’s or even grandchildren’s lives. Conversely, if a person feels they missed opportunities in their career they may avoid anyone in the field that reminds them of what could have been. 

As you age, unresolved regrets can also trigger depression or midlife crisis. Both a midlife crisis and depression often incorporate feelings of regret about things not done or a desire to have done things differently. 

The Best Ways To Minimize Regrets

The detrimental effects that regrets can have means finding an appropriate and healthy way to handle the them. Minimizing regrets is crucial to living a happy and well-balanced life. But just how do you do that when all you can see are the wrong turns and things you could have done better?

The answer to that will vary somewhat depending on what the regret is, but below you will find some strategies for coping with regrets that can help you move forward in a more positive way. 

  • Break it down. If you are experiencing regrets over decisions you have made, not made, or for any other reason, stop and really think about what would have happened if you had done things differently. The challenge here is to avoid idealizing outcomes. There is no, “If I had done xyz my life would be perfect” — it wouldn’t. Every version of life has pitfalls and there is no scenario where your life wouldn’t be without challenges or problems. The grass may seem greener, but the truth is that it’s always a mixed palette. 
  • Look for reasons (not excuses). You are where you are at this point in your life. Understanding and being able own the reasons for it is important. You made the decisions you did for better or worse. If you now feel like they were bad decisions then take a look at what led you to make them and take steps to avoid making the same mistakes again. Be careful not to rewrite history by blaming others though. 
  • Stop over thinking. One of the worst things about regrets is our tendency to allow them to occupy our thoughts and become overblown in our minds. The more you obsess about the things you wish you’d done differently the less able you are to move forward and enjoy your life now. Overthinking things won’t give you a resolution or peace of mind, it will just steal your happiness.
  • Look for the positive. Even if you’ve taken some wrong turns there are always things to be thankful for in your life and quite possibly from that poor decision or two. Every time you find yourself thinking about the regrets you have, try taking a few minutes and think about the positives you’re surrounded by. 
  • Forgive yourself and move on. You can’t go back and change the past. What you can do, however, is focus on your future. So if regrets are plaguing you, it’s time to come to terms with them and move forward. Forgive and accept yourself, learn to adapt to your current circumstances, and then give yourself permission to be happy and let the past be the past. 

We all have regrets and learning to deal with them can be harder for some than for others. If regrets have become a focal point in your life it’s important that you do what’s needed to get past them. Allowing them to fester will only lead to more pain and additional problems down the road. 

Taking Control of Regret

Kurt Smith, Psy.D., LMFT, LPCC, AFC

Dr. Kurt Smith is the Clinical Director of Guy Stuff Counseling & Coaching and writes a blog about the issues facing men (and the women who love them). As an expert in understanding men, their partners, and the unique relationship challenges couples face today, he regularly appears on The Huffington Post, NerdWallet and PsychCentral. Dr. Kurt is a lover of dogs, sarcasm, everything outdoors, and helping those seeking to make their lives and relationships better. Check out his weekly tips on Facebook or Twitter.

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APA Reference
Smith, K. (2020). Taking Control of Regret. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 30, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 23 May 2020 (Originally: 24 May 2020)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 23 May 2020
Published on Psych All rights reserved.