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  • Writer's pictureDavid Carlson

688 How to deal with regret and forgive yourself for making imperfect decisions

Day 688 Wednesday, February 2, 2022

How to deal with regret and forgive yourself for making imperfect decisions.

When you find gratitude for what you learned, growth happens

During Covid, we have had to make lots of decisions, often based on insufficient information and amid unparalleled uncertainty. These conditions are ripe for generating one of the most common emotions that I see in my psychology practice: regret.

Some of us regret decisions we made about the care of our aging relatives. Others are haunted by the knowledge that we may have inadvertently transmitted covid-19 to people we love. Parents who decided to keep their kids at home now feel guilty because some children struggle with being isolated. I've heard people express regrets during the pandemic about being “stuck in a bad relationship, or that they hadn’t taken a trip or done something important to them when they had a chance. That book I wanted to write, those Christmas cards never sent, phone calls never made, and yet I had so much time... or thought I did. The regrets pile up like used a heap of used tires.

Of course, regret was a pervasive emotion long before the pandemic. In one study, it was found to be the second-most frequently mentioned emotion in everyday conversation (after love). Romantic regrets tend to be most common, and those centered on social relationships, in general, are felt more strongly than nonsocial ones — lending credence to the saying that nobody on their deathbed wishes they had spent more time working.

If you tend to get stuck on the things you could have done better in the past, here are strategies to help shift your focus to a better future.

First, try to acknowledge the full reality of what is regretted, including your role in it. As you open up to regret, you might notice different emotions coming to the surface.

“Try to identify and name what you are feeling — name it to tame it,” suggests Chris Germer, clinical psychologist and co-author of “The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions.”

To increase your emotion vocabulary, try using an emotion wheel. Observe the feelings nonjudgmentally, with curiosity, letting them ebb and flow — this is the essence of mindfulness.

You also can observe any judgments your mind is making about these feelings and sensations. Allowing both emotions and thoughts to be there, without fighting them or buying into them, teaches you that you can tolerate the pain without identifying with it. Strength can be cultivated through vulnerability.

A prominent feature of regret, especially the kind that sticks around, is rumination about all the different ways you could have made a better decision or action. This obsessing can turn guilt (an emotion that stems from believing you did something wrong) into shame (the belief that you are wrong or defective).

Although guilt can motivate rectifying action, shame invites wallowing in self-reproach and self-criticism. “Unfortunately, many believe that punishing yourself will lead to positive change. But nothing can be further from the truth,” said Germer.

“Self-blame shuts down learning centers in the brain,” said Tara Brach, a Washington-area meditation teacher, clinical psychologist and author of “Radical Acceptance.” It hardens your heart and isolates you. It doesn’t make what happened okay, nor does it improve your future.”

Remember that to be human is to make mistakes. “Actively offer yourself forgiveness by, for example, whispering ‘forgiven’ or putting a hand on your heart. If that seems like a tall order, having an intention to forgive can be a start,”

In addition to engaging in whatever self-care routine works for you (exercise, meditation, spending time outdoors), other suggestions for fostering self-compassion include

- asking yourself what you would say to a friend in a similar situation,

- trying to channel the emotions of someone who deeply cares about you.

- you can also reach out to loving people in real life; studies found that sharing regret with others can bring you closer to people.

Even if you cannot do anything concrete to repair the situation, you can focus on behaving with integrity going forward. “If you’re solely focused on past regrets, you are unable to be a loving and caring person now and contribute to society the way we’d like”

Give yourself a break. It's been a tough 2 years:

“Realize that what happened was a result of many factors and conditions,”

“And you did the best that you could in that moment, with the information available to you.”

Challenge the unhelpful thinking patterns that can magnify regret. Some of the common patterns tackled in cognitive therapy include:

All-or-nothing thinking: “If I couldn’t protect my kids from getting depressed, I am a bad parent.”

Catastrophizing: “This mistake has doomed me forever!”

Minimizing the positives: “I forgot my friend’s birthday,” while disregarding all the ways you’ve shown her care and kindness over the years.

Fortunetelling: “I should have known better,” even when it was impossible to predict what was coming.

Regret provides us with unprecedented opportunities for learning and improving. Roberts recommends always asking yourself, “What can I learn from this experience?” and “How can I do better next time?”

Regret can reveal what matters to you most and what kind of person you want to be. Productive regret is a teacher. You learn how to turn failures into feedback that helps you improve your decisions and behaviors in the future. You learn to make good decisions by making bad ones.” Research indicates that exploring regrets is related to the search for meaning in life and psychological growth.

“Real tragedy is when you don’t find meaning in your mistakes. When you find gratitude for what you learned, growth happens.”

- Jelena Kecmanovic is the founding director of the Arlington/DC Behavior Therapy Institute and an adjunct professor of psychology at Georgetown University.

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