One of the most common emotions is regret, which stems from looking back on decisions or behaviors and believing that things could have gone better if you made a different choice. When someone experiences regret, it’s likely that disappointment, guilt, self-blame, and frustration are also present. People with these feelings may engage in various behaviors to try to understand why they made a specific decision and how things could have been different if they acted differently.
Regret is an aversive emotion—a defense mechanism. If someone is stuck on lost opportunities, then regret becomes problematic and can be an obstacle to their satisfaction in life. On the other hand, if they use regret as a tool to remind themselves that they need to improve, then it can have a positive effect. Regret can help us understand the reason we acted the way we did. By making sense of past behaviors or thoughts, you can
- Feel less disappointed and hurt.
- Learn from your mistakes and use it in future decisions and actions.
- Change your behaviors and thoughts to lead to better outcomes.
The science behind regret.
Regret is an important emotion because without regret, we cannot learn from our mistakes. We need this emotion to avoid repeating the same mistakes. But research has yet to make it clear how our brain works. A recent study has helped identify the mechanisms involved when we feel regret. The process shows activity in the hippocampus, the area responsible for memory. The same study shows that the emotion of regret and the fear of feeling regret share similar neural circuits, indicating that fearing regret is the same as experiencing regret.
Furthermore, not all of us are affected the same way. People who are more vulnerable to neuroticism are more likely to feel more regret than others. Also, people who focus on the negatives rather than the positives are more prone to feeling regret.
Most common regrets.
“My partner wasn’t my first priority.”Like you, most people seem to agree that there have been times when they didn’t put their spouses before work, friends, or other commitments, and wish that they had.
“I always thought my partner was going to change.”Sometimes, instead of putting in the effort to become the best version of ourselves, we focus on changing our partners. Most of the time, this will bring feelings of disappointment.
“ I took my relationship for granted and stopped communicating with my partner.”One of the problems that couples face when they decide to start relationship coaching is problematic communication. There are times when couples don’t even reach relationship coaching and regret that they didn’t have the chance to fix the communication in their relationship.
“We stopped connecting with each other.”Many couples regret taking their relationship for granted and neglecting to remind each other why they fell in love in the first place. Positive emotions come from maintaining intimacy and a deep connection with your partner. When these are gone, the relationship breaks apart.
Is regret affecting your intimate relationship?
Couples often bring their pasts into their intimate relationship. This is most evident during relationship coaching. There is no doubt that the past can help us learn and become better people, but sometimes, bringing too much regret stops us from enjoying the present. At that time, it ‘s important to see how all these regrets are impacting your relationship. Failures from the past can definitely haunt the present, especially when they involves painful relationships and hurtful breakups.
It is important to realize that everyone has regrets. Some people have dealt with them successfully, while some others have let those regrets transform into shame, guilt, and never-ending remorse. When this happens, it is impossible to enjoy a successful relationship until your past wounds are healed.
The first step toward living a happier life is to find ways to change yourself and your relationship. The next and most important step is to realize that it is your thoughts that cause your feelings and that they cannot hurt you unless you let them. Take the time to understand your feelings. Are these feelings true? Are you focusing only on one aspect instead of different points of view? Once you understand how your thoughts affect your feelings, you can work on modifying them accordingly.
Change the way you think.
When you catch yourself ruminating over what could have been had if you made different decisions, redirect your attention. Keep in mind that you become what you think and if you think about your regrets, you will live a life of disappointment, as will your partner. Focus on the positive aspects of your relationship and start to be grateful for what you have.
Identify the issues.
If, for example, your feelings of regret stem from the bad financial situation you and your partner are in because they don’t manage money well, sit down and work out a plan. If you both have difficulty identifying and fixing the issues, you can seek a relationship coach so you can get the issues resolved.
Give it time.
It is not uncommon for negative thoughts to arise in a relationship. It is more common than you think. Surveys suggest that more than two thirds of women have thought of leaving their relationship at some point. It is important to keep in mind that most conflicts in a relationship can be worked out. Just give your relationship time, and with effort and hard work, the bad stuff will stay in the past.
Listen to your thoughts.
Sometimes, your inner thoughts are warning you about something. If you regret marrying your partner because you were not ready, it would be wise to consider your inner thoughts and review your marriage, especially if you are in a relationship with emotional or physical abuse. If you do decide to leave your relationship, take the time to look at the reasons why so you don’t repeat the same mistakes in future relationships.
Move on from regret to improvement with five simple steps.
It is possible to change the way you think and feel, especially if you want to make your relationship work. Try these five simple steps:
Live every day in the present, not the past.When you worry about the things you’ve done or haven’t done in the past or the choices you made or didn’t make, you will only focus on regrets. Instead, realize that the present is more important right now.
Forgive yourself.We are often more understanding of other people than we are of ourselves. If someone told us about a decision they made in the past that they regretted, we would probably advise them to let go of the past and move on with the present, yet it seems difficult to tell this to ourselves. It is important to recognize that there are things out of our control, especially the past. By learning how to forgive ourselves for the things we cannot control or change and focus on the present, we will reduce the negative emotions and feel more satisfied with ourselves and our lives.
Realize that sometimes, things happen for reasons that are out of your control.Realize that some of the things you regret were not possible to achieve when you were younger. Sometimes, limitations make certain goals we set simply unattainable.
Separate your feelings from your thoughts.Separating your feelings and starting to view the past the way you watch a movie can help you reduce negative feelings, especially feelings of self-blame.
Seek relationship coaching.Sometimes, people cannot face difficulties alone. Relationship coaching can help you get past feelings of regret and learn to recognize how your unproductive thoughts are affecting your relationship.
Regret is retrospective and is always accompanied by the thought that you would somehow be better off now if only you had acted differently in the past. It is followed by negative self-evaluation that may include feelings of guilt, embarrassment, and anger. Additionally, people tend to believe that at the time they did something, they actually could have done otherwise.
The truth is, if there were other choices, people would have made them. It is important to acknowledge that regret is a way of thinking that became adaptive due to early experiences and is difficult to change. The good news is that regret doesn’t always need to be negative. Regret can help us see the past and with awareness we can use it to improve the future. By being able to understand our past behaviors and compassionately forgive ourselves instead of regretting, we can stop repeating the same behaviors.
Finally, another thing to consider is that people may regret something because their actions were against their goals or values. With the help of relationship coaching, partners can learn from the past and set new common goals that will mirror the people they truly want to be. Becoming better as individuals and as a couple and living a life with no regrets is about taking action with confidence, based on who you are and not who you imagine yourself to be.
Connolly, T., & Zeelenberg, M. (2002). Regret in Decision Making. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 11(6), 212–216. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8721.00203.
Coricelli, G., Critchley, H. D., Joffily, M., O’Doherty, J. P., Sirigu, A., & Dolan, R. J. (2005). Regret and its avoidance: a neuroimaging study of choice behavior. Nature neuroscience, 8(9), 1255–1262. https://doi.org/10.1038/nn1514.