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

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During the past year, we have had to make consequential 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.

Many of my patients struggle with the results of pandemic-related decisions. Some regret decisions they made about the care of their aging relatives. Others are haunted by the knowledge that they inadvertently transmitted covid-19 to people they love. Parents who decided to keep their kids at home now feel guilty because their children struggle with mental health issues.

Barbara Roberts, clinical psychologist and director of wellness and clinical services for the Washington Football Team, said her clients expressed 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.”

Christine Le, a 27-year-old from San Francisco, is kicking herself for not getting enough done during the past 15 months. “What I regret the most during the pandemic is that I didn’t focus more on self-development with the extra amount of time that I had,” she said. “I should have put more time into writing my blog, self-care and strengthening my relationships with others.”

A study from Turkey, which is yet to be peer reviewed, suggests that regret is a common issue tied to the pandemic. But it is an emotion that can lead people to spiral into a pernicious mix of shame, anger and depression, unless they take steps to prevent that. 

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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. 

Studies have found that a high level of regret is related to depression, anxiety and worse sleep and problem-solving. Most people feel a pang of regretted action (I wish I hadn’t done that!) quickly and intensely, but regret over inaction (I should have done that) lingers longer. When looking back on life, we tend to most regret not taking chances and opportunities that could have brought us closer to being the person we want to be.

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.  

Accept reality and your emotions

 Regret is uncomfortable, so we often try to mentally run away from it. But denial, distraction or suppression do not work for long — and the pain returns with a vengeance. For example, drinking heavily each evening to drown out your guilt about going on a pandemic vacation that led to your family contracting the coronavirus will amplify the regret in the long run.

 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,” suggested Chris Germer, clinical psychologist and co-author of “The Mindful Path to Self-Compassion: Freeing Yourself from Destructive Thoughts and Emotions.” “Notice the body sensations associated with guilt, remorse, anger, sadness, shame, and see if you can make space for them.”

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

Practice self-compassion

 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.

Research shows that self-compassion is related to the pursuit of important goals, lower procrastination and less fear of failure.

“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.”

Instead, 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,” said Brach.

In addition to engaging in whatever self-care routine works for you (exercise, meditation, spending time outdoors), other suggestions for fostering self-compassion include embracing yourself, asking yourself what you would say to a friend in a similar situation, or trying to channel the emotions of someone who deeply cares about you. You could also reach out to loving people in real life; studies found that sharing regret with others can bring you closer to people.

 Make amends when possible

Accepting reality, and yourself, allows you to face your responsibility and take corrective action. “After you acknowledge what happened, own it, do what needs doing, and seek forgiveness if possible,” said Marine Corps Maj. Thomas Schueman, who teaches courses focused on moral injury, homecoming and belonging at the U.S. Naval Academy, and who led troops in two deployments, losing some of them in action.

Niche Brislane, 32, a farmer from Max, Neb., said she has worked to minimize the damage that resulted from bad choices she made as a young woman. “I made bad financial, relationship, and education decisions, and failed to listen to well-meaning people who had more life experience than me,” she said. “I have salvaged what could be salvaged, and I’m now in a better place.”

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 the society the way we’d like,” said Russ Harris, therapist and author of “The Reality Slap” from Melbourne, Australia.

 Expand your thinking

The pandemic brought extreme uncertainty, danger and the disruption of routines. “When you are scared, your thinking and decision-making are affected. You become more reactive and less deliberate,” said Brach. “And we have all been in a constant state of fear for more than a year.”

 It is thus not surprising that your decision-making was not at its best, so give yourself a break. “Realize that what happened was a result of many factors and conditions,” said Germer. “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.

Learn from your regrets

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?”

Harris suggests that regret can reveal what matters to you most and what kind of person you want to be. For example, you wouldn’t feel bad about not finishing your part of a project on time if you didn’t care about your teammates and take pride in your work. “When you are not consumed by fighting regret or by self-critical judgments and rumination, you can learn a lot about yourself,” Harris said.

 “Productive regret is a teacher,” said Brach. “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,” Schueman said. “When you find gratitude for what you learned, growth happens.”

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