You may or may not know that my jam is helping people live a life of no regrets. Literally, it’s the first thing you see on my website. It says, “live a life of no regrets” because I’ve learned that it’s one of the things I do NOT want to feel after I’ve lived my life.
And people will often say, “How can you…even say that’s possible?” Do you really believe we can not have regrets?
Let’s look at the definition of regret: Regret from the perspective of psychology is a negative cognitive or emotional state that involves blaming ourselves for a bad outcome, feeling a sense of loss or sorrow at what might have been, or wishing we could undo a previous choice that we made.
In the context of our mind and its role in our daily experience of life, regret is a feeling caused by our thoughts, just like other feelings
And most of the time, regret is more deeply felt when it has to do with our OWN behavior.
When it comes to relationships, studies on gender differences in regret show that 44% of women surveyed in one study had romantic regrets, versus just 19% of men.
Studies have also found that regret is much more commonly experienced by young people in individualist cultures. People in more collectivist cultures, which deemphasize individual choice, have less of a basis for blaming themselves for negative outcomes.
Last week I talked about how emotions are information, and regret is no exception.
Regret was rated #1 in a list of negative emotions in fulfilling five functions:
- making sense of the world
- avoiding future negative behaviors
- gaining insight
- achieving social harmony
- improving ability to approach desired opportunities (presumably because we regret past passivity)
As you can see, it can be super helpful!
So why is this experience of regret so painful? Why do we feel it so strongly?
Basically, our brains can’t really tell the difference between a well-imagined past, present and future. They all feel equally real in the moment we are thinking about them because they ARE happening to us in our minds when we think about it.
Regret can also stem from what we call counterfactual thinking. In other words, the easier it is to visualize a different outcome, the more likely we are to regret the lost opportunity. We think we would feel better now if it went down differently, and we imagine “what could have been.”
The main reason regret is painful because we have thoughts that create an entire storyline that it should not have gone down the way it did. And it includes all the dramatic cast of characters like it would have been different if we didn’t screw up, and that we’d be so much happier now if we have showed up in a different way.
And we replay this story over and over and eventually we see this story – our version of what happened – as the truth.
And this leads us to thinking that the past should have been different that it was.
We want to try to change the past, which, last I checked, isn’t possible without a time machine.
Look: If we want to move past regret, we need to create NEW thoughts about the past
When we can have different thoughts TODAY about what happened in the past, we will feel better TODAY. The past does not have to change at all.
Let’s talk a bit about the most common “thought errors” that lead to regret:
1) The first is that we take too much responsibility for the result that occurred after our actions. We think it is “all our fault,” when in reality, many factors came into play for that results to happen.
2) The second is that we let our actions or inactions define who we are as a person. We judge ourselves. We think we ARE our actions. And we think if we had acted differently, we would feel better about ourselves.
The underlying theme here is that we are thinking we’d be happier if the result was different, but that’s not true. It isn’t our circumstances that create how we feel about ourselves. It’s how we perceive them. The thoughts we have about them.
The story we tell about what went down.
The good news is, we can intentionally reshape our brains through our thoughts and experiences. So, we can also turn regret around.
We need to change the story we tell about our past. When we assign new meaning to it, it changes our emotional response to it, and therefore creates different results in our lives.
From an evolutionary perspective, those memories are there to keep us “safe.” To remind us of what to watch for or avoid the danger we experienced. But that mechanism works better for things like saber-toothed tigers. Not for a bad breakup.
They don’t really keep us safe. The only true safety is in ourselves – knowing we have our own back, that we will do what it takes to ensure we are nurturing our highest selves.
If we look at the thought errors I went over earlier, I think the antidotes to both are best described as surrender and moving from judgment to curiosity with self-compassion.
It’s so important to remember that we are not our thoughts and we are not our actions. And you were doing the BEST you could with the resources you had at the time.
And the tradeoff – or the gem – is that we get to do the work to help us grow and learn.
So, is it possible to live with no regrets? Absolutely. And when we live with no regrets, we gain the wisdom from what we learned and then move ON.
Here’s a summary of how you can let go of regret:
// Ask your brain more helpful questions like (I’ll share those in the pod).
// Surrender and let go of the idea that you control things you have no control over.
// Practice self-compassion, moving from judgment to curiosity
// When you didn’t like how you showed up, use the insightful aspects of regret, and commit to doing the work so that your actions align with your values.
Ultimately, this is about cultivating ziji, that Tibetan word I love that means radiant inner confidence.
Topics in this week’s podcast:
// What is regret, and why is it so painful?
// Two common “thought errors” that lead to regret and keep us stuck
// How to ask the right questions about our past mistakes
// How to change our thoughts to stop regret in its tracks
// 4 things you can do to let go of your regret
// Episode 39 where I talk about visualization and a 4-step exercise to help you prep for any important event
// If you’re new to the squad, grab the starter kit I created at RebelBuddhist.com. It has all you need to start creating a life of more freedom, adventure, and purpose. You’ll get access to the private Facebook group where you can ask me questions! Once you join, there’s also a weekly FB live called Wake the F*ck Up Wednesday, where you can ask questions that come up as you do this work – in all parts of your life.
// Don’t regret waiting to sign up for Freedom School, where I teach all this good stuff in a way that helps you apply everything you learn to real, messy life. Check out JoinFreedomSchool.com and learn more (and there are some sweet bonuses for you too!). And FYI – the entire month of JUNE is dedicated to writing your new life story.