How to live with regret and make peace with the past

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Medically reviewed by
Andrea Brant
Updated April 1, 2024
by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Our past decisions often shape our future. When our past decisions have positive outcomes for the better, this can instill a sense of confidence and self-esteem within us. When they have negative outcomes isn’t, we may feel regret and all the negative emotions that come with it, like self-criticism and self-blame.
For better or worse, what happened in the past remains there. We can’t change our choices about events or things that have already happened. We can, however, choose how we think about them in the present moment.
In this post, we’ll explore why people feel regret; the impact common regrets can have on our mental health, and some ways regret can benefit us when used healthily. We’ll also provide suggestions on how you can make peace with the past, live with regret in the present, and move forward confidently into the future.
Why do people feel regret?
We may think about regret as negative emotions over what things we’ve done or what things we failed to do— but research suggests that regret may have more to do with self-concept. This is referred to as the self-discrepancy theory.
According to the self-discrepancy theory, an individual’s sense of self consists of three parts:
The actual self— Represents our sense of self and the qualities and attributes we think we possess.
The ideal self— Represents the self we’d like to be and the traits we’d consider “ideal.”
The ought self— Represents the self we’d like to be and qualities we think we should possess within the context of our obligations and duties to others.
When the ideal or ought is misaligned with the actual self, it typically results in negative emotions. For example, one may feel disappointed if they didn’t (don’t) live up to the ideal self, or they might feel guilty when they think they haven’t lived up to the ought self.
Studies on self-discrepancy theory indicate that not only do people regret differently based on the type of self they most identify with, but individuals typically feel more urgency to resolve ought-based regrets than ideal-based regrets.
How regret can affect your mental health
Regardless of the type of self we identify with, we’re all likely at some time to experience regrets based on something we’ve done or something we didn’t do. Both point to self-blame as a driver— that is, we may blame ourselves for our regrets instead of viewing our past choices within the broader context of circumstance and the information we had at the time.
This perspective can not only influence how regret feels, but it can also significantly impact our mental and physical health in many ways:
Regret can lead to patterns of repetitive rumination that, when left unaddressed, can emerge as mood disorders like major depression and dysthymia.
Regret can create chronic stress and interfere with our ability to cope with stressful situations. Over time, this type of stress can result in a number of anxiety-related conditions like generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), social anxiety, and panic disorders.
The mental health issues that stem from regret can negatively affect our physical health, too. For example, sleep disturbances, headaches, muscle pain, changes in appetite, and digestive distress are all common symptoms of depression and anxiety that one may experience due to regret.
Regret as a tool
While unproductive regret can negatively impact our well-being in many ways, it’s important to note that regret doesn’t always have to be harmful. With the right perspective, it can also be a positive force.
In practical terms, the type of self we identify with can guide our choices and potentially avoid future regret. For example, if an individual is more impacted by their responsibilities and obligations to others, they may want to pay closer attention when making life decisions related to relationships. People who are more influenced by living up to ideals might wish to evaluate their choices associated with achievement and self-improvement.
Regret. It might influence how we gain insight into complicated issues and make sense of the world. Feeling regret can shape how we relate to others and act as a motivator to take healthy risks. (It’s worth mentioning that wWhile regret can serve us as a motivator, anticipated regret might also hinder one’s ability to make sound decisions.)
Tips for making peace with regret
Though regret can have a significant powerful influence over how we think about ourselves, we can take steps to mitigate the negative impacts of regret.
Practice acceptance
It’s reasonable to say that it’s a natural tendency for people to make mistakes or wish they had made different choices and done things differently sometimes. Acknowledging those regrets and accepting them as they are can pave the way for peace and growth.
Learn from the experience
Use your regrets as opportunities for personal growth. Reflect on your choices without rumination or judgment and consider what you can learn from them to make better decisions in the future.
Practice self-kindness and forgiveness
You may sometimes fallIt might be tempting to spiral into a pattern of negative self-talk and ridicule, but be sure to treat yourself with kindness and understanding as you reflect on your regrets. Take good care of yourself by:
Engaging in self-soothing talk and self-compassion.
Participating in activities you enjoy.
Nurturing your skills.
Getting plenty of exercise and fresh air.
Keeping healthy eating and sleeping habits.
Practicing gratitude and kindness towards others.
Self-forgiveness is often the antidote to self-blame. Understanding that the choices you made in the past didn’t occur in a vacuum but were also influenced by the environment around you can provide you with the space needed for self-forgiveness.
Focus on what you can control now
Learning from the past can be essential, but dwelling on regrets can prevent us from fully experiencing the present. Try to concentrate on aspects of your life that you can control in the present and capitalize upon the opportunities and experiences you have right now. While you can’t change the past, you can influence your present and potentially avert future regret.
Set realistic expectations
Predicting the future or making perfect decisions every time isn’t possible to predict the future or make perfect decisions all the time. Setting realistic expectations for yourself can help you navigate life’s uncertainties without experiencing overwhelming regret.
Seek Support
Sometimes, expressing our regrets out loud can provide relief and offer a different perspective. If you’re comfortable doing so, share your feelings with friends, family, or a trusted confidant.
Make amends if necessary/possible
If your regret involves someone else, and it’s appropriate, consider making amends. This is often difficult to do because it may take considerable bravery and vulnerability, but it can be highly beneficial on your journey to coping. If you need help, recruit the support of people you trust or confide in a therapist. Try apologizing and taking responsibility for your actions, but also recognize that the other person may need time to process.
Letting go of regret is vital for moving forward
Therapy can put you on the path
If you need additional help
Coming to terms with regret isn’t easy, and living with regret is a common human experience. It may take time, effort, and patience to recognize the underpinnings of your relationship with regret and learn to accept it. Once you understand this and approach yourself with kindness and without judgment, it is possible to learn from regret and move on.
But for some, regret can be chronic, contributing to mental health disorders like anxiety and depression. People in this circumstance may find it challenging to cope with the problematic symptoms of anxiety and depression on their own, creating obstacles to wellness in daily life, relationships, and productivity. Under conditions like these, seeking help from a therapist or counselor can be beneficial.
Some individuals struggling with the effects of regret on their mental health may find it challenging to reach out for help. They may feel reluctant to speak to someone or self-conscious due to the stigma associated with therapy. Some people don’t have access to conventional treatment or have scheduling conflicts that make it difficult to attend sessions. Others may assume that therapy is unaffordable, or it simply won’t work for them.
Online therapy is a solution to these barriers to treatment. Platforms like BetterHelp match individuals with licensed, accredited therapists from a variety of backgrounds and specialties. You can speak to a virtual therapist via video chat, phone, or online messaging on your schedule. Unlike conventional therapy, commuting to and from appointments isn’t necessary, and you can access your therapist from anywhere with a reliable internet connection.
Online therapy is often more affordable than traditional therapy without insurance, and a growing body of research indicates it’s as effective for treating a wide variety of conditions, including anxiety, depression, PTSD, and bipolar disorder.
If you need help moving beyond regret, a BetterHelp therapist can provide guidance and support as you navigate your feelings. Reaching out is the first step on your journey to healing.
Takeaway
Regret is a common experience for many people. While regret can have many negative impacts, it can also serve as an opportunity for learning and growth. You don’t have to live with regret. Reach out to a therapist for extra support. Coming to terms with it isn’t always easy, but it’s important to remember that living with regret is a common human experience. It may take time, effort, and patience to recognize the underpinnings of your relationship with regret and learn to accept it. Once you understand this and approach yourself with kindness and without judgment, it is possible to learn from regret and move on.**


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