7 Changes That Helped Me Get Over Regret
Do these words sound familiar?
They’re the voices of regret that taunt us in our heads.
I know those feelings all too well.
My Encounter With Regret
There was a time when those voices of regret echoed constantly in my mind.
Not a day went by where I didn’t think how my life would be different if I had done this and didn’t do that—and then perhaps I wouldn’t have developed cancer.
Sometimes I would sit there thinking those same thoughts over and over again until a flood of guilt, frustration, and sadness engulfed me.
Needless to say, it was not a happy or productive time in my life.
I’m happy to say that those days are a thing of the past. Nowadays I don’t dwell much on regrets anymore. I don’t hear the “shoulda”, “coulda”, or “woulda’s” droning on and on in my head. Instead, I try to live in the present moment and enjoy it to the fullest.
How was I able to get over regret?
There were 7 key changes I made in my life that helped me get over regret and start enjoying my life. And I believe they will help you too.
Let me show you what they are.
7 Changes You Can Make to Help You Get Over Regret
1. Forgive Yourself
One of the biggest regrets I used to have was how I didn’t leave a toxic summer job soon enough in the weeks leading up to my cancer diagnosis.
For a long time, I believed I was to blame for my disease.
Why didn’t I leave when I would come home crying day after day with a pounding headache?
Why didn’t I stand up for myself more?
And why didn’t I take care of myself better?
The thoughts would gnaw away at me.
But slowly I learned to forgive myself.
I realized I couldn’t have known what was going to happen. I can’t berate myself for making a decision based on the only information I had at the time. So I patted myself on the back and said: “you did the best you could”.
And from then on, every time those voices of regret came up, I would give myself an imaginary pat on the back instead of a kick.
It was liberating.
Self-compassion is a beautiful thing. It does wonders to our mental wellbeing. In fact, research shows that self-compassion helps us move on from regret and leads to greater personal development.
Next time you want to kick yourself for those mistakes you think you could have or should have prevented, give yourself a pat on the back instead. Not only will you feel better, it will also help you learn and grow from the experience.
Doesn’t matter if it was a “stupid mistake” or you feel you “should have known better”. It already happened and no amount of self-blame is going to change that fact.
2. Accept the Present Moment
We can’t change the past.
We have to accept the present moment, no matter what it looks like.
I admit this was a tough one for me to swallow. I’m still working on digesting this fact of life.
There are times when I still find myself replaying the past in my mind and imagining a different outcome. It’s like watching an old movie except with a new ending.
Because I know I’ll only feel sad and empty when the movie is over.
The present moment is the only reality we have and get to have. No matter how much we wish we could edit the past to arrive at a different present moment, it’s not going to happen. So why bother imagining it?
We’ll only feel worse.
The next time you find yourself imagining or wishing for a different present moment, remind yourself that the present moment is the only option you have.
Accept the present moment no matter what it looks like. The sooner you do that the sooner you can start to live more fully in it.
3. Build Self-Efficacy by Focusing on What You Can Control
Regret makes you feel helpless.
It’s as if you’re at the bottom of a dark pit trying to reach for the ropes that will get you back up. But you can’t quite get to it.
You feel like you might be stuck there forever.
When I was wallowing in regret, I felt like I was spinning my wheels in that dark pit and getting nowhere. I knew I needed to get away from this feeling but I didn’t know how.
It was beyond frustrating.
But then I had a moment of clarity. I realized not everything is completely out of my control. Yes there were a lot of things outside of myself that I couldn’t control, but I had so much power over myself—I just didn’t see it.
So I started to focus on what I could control. Instead of throwing my hands up in the air and say “this is hopeless”, I started asking myself: “What can I do now to make things better?”
Rather than worrying about things that were out of my control I started to focus only on what I could do to improve the situation.
If there was nothing I could do to change the external situation, at least I could change the way I perceived it.
That made me start to believe I had the ability to create a positive outcome no matter how dire the situation looked.
This sense of self-efficacy—the belief that we’re capable of overcoming whatever challenge we face—was instrumental in helping me recover my physical health. What’s more, it has helped me heal emotionally and in the process, discover much-needed self-love.
And I’m not the only one who raves about the positive effects of self-efficacy. Psychologists and physicians have long understood that a sense of self-efficacy is important for mental wellbeing and happiness.
So next time you feel like you’re stuck in the dark pit of regret, instead of ruminating over how bad the situation looks or how you wish you didn’t get here in the first place, ask yourself: “What can I do to make this better?”
4. Open Your Eyes and Your Mind to New Opportunities
Do you feel like you’ve lost an opportunity that you’ll never have again? Perhaps a dream job, the love of your life, or the chance to make amends.
Do you feel like your life will never be as good as it could have been if you didn’t miss that opportunity?
It’s normal to feel grief over lost opportunities. When I found out I could never bear a child after my bone-marrow transplant, I felt a profound sense of loss.
I’d always thought my life would follow a linear trajectory. I’d establish a stable career soon after graduating from university, get married in my mid-20’s, and have kids before I turned 30.
I never imagined I could encounter something like treatment-induced infertility. So when my ovarian function started to decline and I began to experience symptoms of menopause at the age of 21, I thought the life I had always pictured—the ideal life that I had thought I wanted—was over.
For a long time, I thought the current version of my life would never be as fulfilling as the version where I’m able to bear children.
It didn’t seem possible.
But now I know my life can be just as wonderful even if I can’t have a child.
How did this change happen?
I learned to open my eyes and my mind to new opportunities around me.
When I looked farther than the immediate people around me, I began to realize that not everyone will go through life in that same trajectory of work, marriage, children, and death.
Yes, I can’t have a child biologically. But that doesn’t mean I will never get the chance to be a mother someday.
In the meantime, not being able to have a child has given me more time to work on myself and figure out how I can better contribute to this world. It’s allowed me to travel and see more of the world without the responsibilities that come with motherhood. It has also forced me to reflect more on whether I truly want to be a mother. And if so, how I can be a good one when the time comes.
It’s okay to cry over lost opportunities. I’ve cried. Never think that you have to suppress your emotions.
But once you’ve had a good cry, dry your tears and start looking out for new opportunities. You’ll see them once you open your eyes and your mind to them.
If you keep crying—then like the poet Tagore said—you will miss seeing the stars.
5. Seek Out Positive Experiences, Things, and People
You know how the more you want to get over regret, the more it seems like your mind won’t stop fixating on it?
It’s like if I asked you to not think about polar bears, your mind will likely drift to images of a fluffy polar bear rolling in arctic snow. And no matter how hard you try to stamp out the images, they keep coming back to you.
This phenomenon is dubbed “the white bear effect”. It means the more you try to suppress a thought, the more it will “rebound” and stick in your mind. So the more we fret over why we can’t get over our regrets, the more we’ll think about them.
The key to getting over regret then, is to stop fighting it. Sounds counter-intuitive, doesn’t it?
Hear me out.
I used to be hard on myself for feeling regret and other negative emotions like anxiety, rumination, and pessimism.
I knew positivity was the key to a happier and healthier life. But no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t stop thinking those nagging thoughts and feeling those horrible emotions.
And then I made the choice to stop fighting them.
In my very first blog post here, I talked about how I stopped chasing out negative thoughts like they’re vermins and learned to accept them as part of normal life.
Instead of beating myself up for “being negative”, I decided to occupy myself with more positive experiences, things, and people.
I planned more activities that I knew would bring me joy—like walks in nature, spending time with loved ones, and watching uplifting films. I looked for more positive stories, ideas, and thoughts. And I limited my exposure to negative things like gossip or the news. I became intentional about the people I spend my time with and started setting boundaries with people who exuded more negativity than I could handle.
The more I filled my life with positive experiences, things, and people, the less room I had in my mind for the negatives. Until one day I realized I didn’t think much about regret or those other negative emotions anymore.
If you find yourself unable to get away from regret, chances are that regret is your polar bear. Instead of fighting it, focus on adding more positivity into your life.
Now this 5-minute podcast is a great place to start.
6. Practice Gratitude
Gratitude played a crucial role in helping me get over regret and start living in the moment.
Once I started acknowledging the good things in my life—anything and everything from the sun shining when I woke up in the morning to getting a good spot in a full parking lot—I felt happier and more present in the moment. And slowly, regret faded to the background until I forgot all about it.
Of course, I didn’t wake up one day suddenly filled with gratitude. It took a lot of effort to turn the gratitude faucet on.
When we’re deep in regret, it can be hard to appreciate the good things around us.
Our regret seems like a giant dark cloud that looms over us and makes everything in our world look grey.
That’s not surprising. “if only” are powerful words that have the ability to destroy our happiness.
So if you’re not feeling very thankful now, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with you. Gratitude is something that will take some time and a little practice.
Start by asking yourself this:
What are some good things that have happened to you so far today? A good cup of coffee in the morning? A nice chat with your coworkers? Or a text from a friend you haven’t talked to in a while?
If you can’t think of any, how about this? You’re reading this post which means you still have a pulse—and that’s always a good thing.
Studies show that you can increase feelings of gratitude with intentional activities such as jotting down the things you’re grateful for. Think of gratitude like a muscle. the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets.
So make the effort to notice the good things in your life. Write them down in a notebook, in your phone (here are some handy free apps to help you record gratitude), or simply say it out loud.
7. Make Value-Based Decisions
The final change I made is all about making choices that prevent regret from building up in the first place.
Oftentimes the things we regret the most are decisions we made in haste without thinking about how they reflect who we are as a person.
When we look back on these decisions we feel disconnected—almost as if we’re looking at things someone else had done. We have a description of ourselves in our mind and this decision we regret doesn’t fit with that description.
This is called cognitive dissonance. Think of it as an alarm that sounds in our mind when our actions contradict our values. And it’s a form of regret.
So the best way to reduce this kind of regret is to make value-based decisions in the first place.
I find that when I make value-based decisions, I’m happier and more accepting of the outcome, no matter what it is. I know I made the best decision I could have made using my values as a compass. Even if the decision turns out to be a failure, the guilt doesn’t cut as deep. I’m able to pick myself up quickly and move on.
It is by no means a perfect system (let’s face it, we’ll never be immune to making bad decisions), but making value-based decisions is a good place to start if you want to get over regret or at the very least, diminish its sting.
Let Go of Regret and Start Enjoying Your Life Now
Hopefully, this post has given you some ideas on how to start letting go of regret, but the key<—remember—is you have to start.
Don’t let regret rule your life even a minute longer.
You deserve to enjoy your life without the nagging voices of regret. It will take some practice but you will get there.
So let’s practice together.