How to Reframe Regret

For years, the phrase, “No regrets” has been a culturally accepted way to approach life. It is commonplace to hear questions regarding regret in job interviews, on first dates, and in new social settings. Historically, I’ve found myself saying, “I don’t have time for regrets! Everything happens for a reason.” 

how to reframe regret

However, as I entered my career as a mental health professional, I realized that many people experience regret. Having a blasé attitude regarding this common emotion was unhelpful. Many spoke about how they had regrets regarding previous moral infractions or opportunities not taken. Some described feeling as if their regrets were paralyzing them from taking risks or moving forward. I began to wonder, “Can we reframe regret be a useful emotion?” 

What is regret?

According to the Cambridge English Dictionary, regret is, “A feeling of sadness about something sad or wrong or about a mistake that you have made, and a wish that it could have been different and better.” Some minor examples of regret that I have are not trying out for my high school basketball team and attempting to wax my own eyebrows. Regret can be connected to inaction (such as my non-attempt at being a baller) or action (such as my unfortunate attempt at taming my own eyebrows). 

In either scenario, regret is a common emotional experience. In an interview with Shankar Vedantam of the Hidden Brain podcast, Dr. Amy Summerville shares that regret is the second most common emotion discussed in daily life. It’s also the most common negative emotion that we speak about.

Somewhat counterintuitively, Dr. Summerville reports that regret can be a hopeful emotion, which can allow humans to change behaviors based on their regret. Conversely, Dr. Summerville notes regret can also be based in rumination, leaving us unable to move forward. To reframe regret as a growth-oriented emotion, we must move away from rumination and toward integration. But how is that done?

Five ways to reframe regret

1. Challenge your thinking

If we’re ruminating in regret, we’re often experiencing some form of a cognitive distortion, or a thought that lacks rational evidence. One common distortion related to ruminative regret is a pattern I like to call “should-ing yourself.” It can sound like this: “I should have left the house on time. If I had done that I wouldn’t have gotten in this accident.”

Another distortion related to regret is called “all or nothing thinking” in which our thoughts are polarized. That may sound like, “I never should have failed that exam. I will never have a career that I want.”

In both of these thought patterns, there is likely no rational evidence. The car accident might still have happened, and you’d probably still have a successful career after to one failed exam. When we notice our thoughts don’t have rational evidence, we must generate a new thought to challenge our thinking. Completing a thought challenging exercise can support us in moving from a ruminative regret thought pattern to a solution-oriented thought.

2. Openly speak about the regrets you are experiencing

Regret can be internally challenging if it is not discussed openly with trusted individuals. Left alone, regrets can breed shame, an emotion that tells us, “I am bad” or “I am unworthy.” Brené Brown, famous for her research on shame, states that the best antidote to shame is empathy. If we share our regrets with others who we trust, we invite in empathy and compassion, which encourages healing.

3. Allow regrets to be learning experiences

If we choose to use regrets for learning and growing, we can use them in a powerful way. In some circumstances, the learning experience may be more obvious than others. For example, if I fail an exam after not studying, I can reframe regret to encourage a change in studying behaviors.

A less obvious learning experience may come from regrets that feel less tangible. For example, I may regret not calling a loved one more frequently before they died. I cannot call my loved one now, but my regret may encourage me to contemplate how I participate in my present relationships.

4. Practice self-forgiveness

Moving forward from regret often involves allowing ourself to practice self-forgiveness. To forgive ourselves, it is important to first acknowledge the wrong we want forgiveness for and our emotions about that wrong. We can then ask ourselves if we are putting an appropriate amount of regret on the situation. Often, we are harder on ourselves than is reasonable.

Next, if there is an opportunity to apologize for our regret or engage in a restorative practice (such as replacing an item that was broken), we should attempt to do so. Lastly, it is important to allow ourselves to let go and remember that we have done everything that we can to be accountable. 

5. Change your behavior

A final way to reframe regret is to change our behaviors. Instead of ruminating on what could or should have been, we can change our thoughts to reflect behavior change. A simple way to do this is to change our “coulds to cans” and our “shoulds to wills.” For example, instead of saying I should have studied for my test, we can change our thought to say, I will study for my next exam. 

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Mental Health Think & Feel

About Sarah Kelly

Sarah Kelly is a licensed social worker and certified alcohol and drug counselor. Sarah received her MSW from Loyola University and Chicago and currently works as an individual and group therapist for Clarity Clinic Chicago with an emphasis in addiction and trauma work. While Sarah believes that therapy is a significant and often necessary tool to foster personal and community wellness, Sarah believes in caring for the whole person and whole community. Sarah works towards this value by engaging in Chicago’s running and yoga communities, tapping into several book clubs and indulging in the bachelor. Sarah hopes to support you in the process in discovering what brings you value in yourself and your community.

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