Do you have regrets? Perhaps your immediate reaction might be no, but—if you’re completely honest with yourself—you probably regret at least some things you’ve done or haven’t done. It’s part of being human and having free will.
Like all emotions, regret can be extremely helpful if we are able to learn what it reveals to us. There is wisdom when we reflect on what this regret means on a deeper level.
Regret can occur when you believe your past action or behavior, if changed, may have produced a better outcome. We all have regrets about something at some point in our lives and it’s best not to deny feeling it. Regret can often be closely associated with feeling guilt or shame and can then be expressed to others in an apology.
According to Daniel H. Pink, author of The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward, there are three options for responding to regret. Acknowledge that 1) feeling is for ignoring, which results in delusion; 2) feeling is for feeling, which results in despair; or 3) feeling is for thinking, which results in better decisions, improved performance, and deeper meaning.
This third option is all about emotional intelligence and welcoming the information derived from your feelings without dismissing or getting overwhelmed by them. It means recognizing and responding to what you’re feeling in a way that helps you navigate your life, particularly when regret surfaces.
Pink says the deep structure of regret can be about the human need for stability, growth, goodness, or love. For example:
If you find yourself saying things like “if only I’d done the work,” this is likely a foundation regret that reveals your need for stability. Or when you find yourself thinking “if only I’d taken the risk,” this is about boldness where you are perhaps concerned about growth. When you think “if only I’d done the right thing,” this is likely a moral issue where you are concerned with goodness. And when you think “if only I’d reached out,” this is very likely a connection issue where you are missing the love that passed you by.
To learn what regret is telling you, it helps to write about it or talk about it with others. Pink suggests that you relive and relieve regret to reduce some of the burden and begin to make sense of it.
“Writing about regret or revealing a regret to another person moves the experience from the realm of emotion into the realm of cognition,” says Pink. “Instead of those unpleasant feelings fluttering around uncontrollably, language helps us capture them in our net, pin them down, and begin analyzing them.”
This ability to analyze your regret means you can learn what the feeling is trying to tell you. Perhaps you need to apologize to someone who you’ve offended. Or maybe you need to reach out to someone with whom you’ve lost touch. You could act now to relieve your regret and likely unburden you with the weight you may be carrying as a result.
Other regrets such as not choosing a different career path may be difficult to reconcile, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t something to be learned from what you’re feeling. You could certainly choose to look at it differently. That is, you may believe that a different career path would have been better, but how do you know? Rather than ruminate on what might have been, maybe you could celebrate all that you have, which may not have been possible with another career.
So often it is only after the passage of time that we can see the thread that connects the events and people in our lives. If you embrace the feeling of regret and learn what it can teach, you are more likely to regard it as meaningful and move it from a debilitating feeling into meaningful action.