How I Redeem My Regrets

Use your past mistakes as fuel to create your future

It happens when my mind is most idle.

While I’m driving, when I’m in the shower, and as I’m laying in bed waiting to fall asleep.

I run regrets through my mind like a daily treadmill.

Sometimes it’s short-term and relatively unimportant, like regretting I didn’t organize my past Wednesday better so I could’ve been more productive. Other times it’s a bit more significant, like regretting I didn’t take more trips and outings with my family this past summer. 

Most of the time though, it’s the same major events and life decisions that my mind likes to revisit. Regretting not taking a career opportunity. Regretting not making the move to a new city. Regretting how I reacted in situations with people.

We all live with regrets. It’s part of the human experience and unique to the human experience.

Regret Can Be Extremely Damaging

Though regret is a normal part of being human, dwelling on it can be harmful. It’s one thing to recall a mistake in your life whenever something reminds you of it. But it’s something else to intentionally go to that mistake over and over again.

In a Psychology Today article, Greenberg says:

Regret can have damaging effects on mind and body when it turns into fruitless rumination and self-blame that keeps people from re-engaging with life.

Melanie Greenberg Ph.D., ‘The Psychology of Regret’

The key here is fruitless rumination. Revisiting past decisions for the sake of remorse is pointless. When it doesn’t serve any beneficial purpose, regret will rot away at our mind and subsequently affect our physical bodies. We’re unable to re-engage with life, leaving us trapped in the past like our own self-imposed purgatory.

Like I mentioned with my own regrets, it’s not necessarily the regrets from the past days or weeks that hold me down, it’s the regrets from several years ago.

Regret is Most Painful Over Inaction

You’ve heard the phrase, “You regret more the things you didn’t do than the things you did do.”

It may sound like a cheesy quote that ends up on motivational posters and social media graphics, but it actually has roots in research.

Greenberg also notes:

Over short time periods, people are more likely to regret actions taken and mistakes made—whereas over long time periods, they are more likely to regret actions not taken, such as missed opportunities for love or working too hard and not spending enough time with family.

Melanie Greenberg Ph.D., ‘The Psychology of Regret’

For those of us who are in our 30’s or older, we can certainly identify with this. As more and more of those ‘prime years’ slip into the past, the missed opportunities start piling up.

It’s so easy to dwell on the “what ifs” and “what could’ve beens.” For every decision we make or don’t make, there are infinite alternatives. We’ll never really know what would’ve happened, so it’s a fruitless endeavor to go down that road. 

How You Can Deal With Regret

Instead of dwelling in the pain of regret, there are alternative ways to handle it. In an article on Psychology Today, Sreenivasan and Weinberger offer a few positive ways to deal with regret:

Do not repeat in your mind “if only” thinking. We dream up potential scenarios if we would have made a different decision, but really have no way of verifying if that would actually be the case. This kind of thinking only brings us down.

Accept that no life can be lived without regrets. This may be hard to accept, as we love to adopt the pop-culture phrase “Live with no regrets.” But that’s a false statement. There will always be regret, and accepting that will help us move beyond it.

Forecast regret. Because we know that there will always be regret, we can anticipate it with every decision we make. Every choice is a rejection of all other choices, meaning that we will always be left wondering about those other choices. 

Look for the benefits that derive from regret. This is what I want to focus on. Regret isn’t something that should be avoided or remedied. It is an inevitability of life. But it does serve a purpose, and we can use it to our benefit.

Regret Can Force You to Change

Regret focuses on the past, something that we can’t change. But in life, scenarios and opportunities can be very similar. The situations in which we made those “mistake decisions” in the past will come up again in the future, and we’ll be presented with very familiar choices. 

Regret can provide the wisdom to make the right choice next time. While regret is a painful feeling and can often result in negative outlooks, it can also be a powerful and positive motivator for change. 

Once more, Greenberg puts it this way: “The pain of regret can result in refocusing and taking corrective action or pursuing a new path.” (Melanie Greenberg Ph.D., ‘The Psychology of Regret’). If the results of your past actions are painful enough, they’ll forced you to do something different to achieve a different outcome. 

By reframing your regret, you can change that “what could’ve been” to a “what could be.”

Use Regrets as Real Life Case Studies

Coming from a marketing background, I often look at case studies of other brands. Failed marketing campaigns are often good lessons on how to do things differently. I’ve come to take that same approach with my life. What better case study is there for improving my life than to look at my own mistakes and failures?

I look at the decisions in my life that cause the most regret. In those scenarios, I made that decision with the information I had at hand. If I relived that moment, I would make the exact same decision if I didn’t have any foresight.

But I look back on those decisions now with hindsight and extra information. What would I have done differently? More importantly, what were the signs and details of that scenario that I should’ve paid more attention to? If I encountered a similar situation in the future, how would I perceive it, evaluate it, and act accordingly?

When we see our own regrets as case studies, we suddenly encounter a treasure trove of valuable information. As I think back through the decisions I’ve made in the past, I’ll often journal about them, except I rewrite it with the decision I should’ve made and what the outcome would’ve been. It’s like an “alternate reality” journal. But the purpose of it isn’t to daydream. The most important part is to write out why I made this different decision. What were the factors I paid attention to and considered? What values did I have that led me to choose this decision?

Ultimately it helps reaffirm not so much the actions I take, but the person I am. Having a confidence in who I am, or at least who I want to be, helps guide the future decisions I make so I can live with a little less regret.

The Most Important Lesson from Regret

When we think about regret, the most common question might be “why did I do that?” But a deeper, underlying question is really, “What kind of person was I to make that decision?”

Regret calls into question our very own sense of self – the tension between who we were, who we are, and who we want to be. Regret is about more than just decisions and actions, it’s ultimately about destiny. 

A research article pointed out this fascinating discovery:

People are quicker to take steps to cope with failures to live up to their duties and responsibilities (ought-related regrets) than their failures to live up to their goals and aspirations (ideal-related regrets). As a consequence, ideal-related regrets are more likely to remain unresolved, leaving people more likely to regret not being all they could have been more than all they should have been. 

Shai Davidai & Thomas Gilovich, ‘The ideal road not taken: The self-discrepancies involved in people’s most enduring regrets’

In the short-term, we’re more likely to deal with regrets that have to do with obligations. I should’ve finished that project on time, so I’ll be early next time. I should’ve worked harder or done it with higher quality, so I’ll do better next time.

But we’re less likely to rectify the regrets that have to do with who we are and aspire to become. I should’ve been more compassionate, more loving, more courageous, more forgiving… more of who I want to become. Yet we don’t take the necessary steps to resolve those regrets, so we carry those further into our lives.

Ultimately, we’re left with the regrets of who we could’ve been.

Redeem Your Regrets, Redeem Your Future

Your future isn’t set, but it’s likely. The actions of your past – the person you’ve become – sets the trajectory for your future. If you continue as you’ve always been, you will most certainly become a more intense version of yourself. 

If that’s who you want to be, then that’s a great thing. But if it isn’t, you’re left with a bleak future.

However, if you can learn to accept your past mistakes and study them, you can create a profile of the person you want to become. This profile includes the values you would hold, the things you would pay attention to, and the decisions you would make. 

As you use more and more of your regrets to build up the profile of your ideal self, and begin to make decisions based on that person, you alter the course of your future. Your regrets are now the fuel to become the person you want to be and the future you want to create.

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