We all experience regret, and that’s not a bad thing. Knowing how to deal with regret helps you build a life that is authentic, ethical, and meaningful. Without it, you wouldn’t have good information about who you are at your core, what you need to be happy and whole, and where you have opportunities to grow.
But as positive as regret can be, it’s also true that it hurts. I’ve sat with many therapy clients who were feeling brutally painful regret about hurting people they loved, or missing opportunities to transform their lives in positive ways, or neglecting their relationships until they ended in a breakup or divorce. These feelings can be difficult to tolerate, much less process and learn from.
When you don’t know how to deal with regret in a healthy way, it’s easy to become trapped in a vortex of unhealthy guilt and toxic shame that makes you feel hopeless and defeated. You may start believing that you are broken, perhaps even irredeemably so. You may suffer low self-esteem and stop believing that you are worthy of love and respect. You may experience depression, which can lead to more regrettable decisions, which will make you feel even worse, and on and on. To stop this cycle, you have to embrace regret as an opportunity to become stronger, healthier, and more compassionate toward yourself and others.
This article is all about how you can do that. If you’d prefer to listen, I’ve also created an episode of the Love, Happiness and Success podcast on this topic. You can find the episode on this page, Apple podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen.
How to Deal with Guilt and Regret
We all mess up, sometimes big time. Maybe you cheated on your partner and you’re facing the loss of your relationship. Maybe you made major decisions for the wrong reasons, like marrying the wrong person, or choosing a career you didn’t like, and now you’re looking back on a life that feels wasted. Maybe your regrets are less extreme, but they still leave you feeling bad about who you are.
Whatever it is you regret, there are some steps you can take to deal with regret in a way that nurtures your growth, rather than feeling stuck.
When you make a mistake, especially one with painful consequences, it can feel like you should be beating yourself up. Especially if you’ve spent a lot of time around people who can be harsh or critical, you may have a core belief that punishing yourself is the only way to learn and grow. You might be telling yourself an awful story — about how you’re lazy, or worthless, or stupid, etc. — with the expectation that this will somehow help you do better in the future.
Take it from an experienced therapist who has listened in on many people’s inner dialogues and witnessed how their narratives either help them succeed or hold them back — there is zero benefit to having a relationship with yourself that is abusive, critical, or disrespectful. It does not help you become your best self. In fact, it does the opposite.
When you are unkind to yourself after a mistake, you’re more likely to feel paralyzed and defeated than to feel hopeful and confident in your power to create positive change. It makes it more difficult for you to brush yourself off and learn from your experiences. Over time, a critical inner voice can even breed depression and anxiety. Having healthy self-esteem and self-compassion helps you feel strong enough to face your regrets head on. It helps you believe in yourself enough to do better today than you did yesterday.
To practice self-compassion, first stop judging yourself. There is a reason you did what you did when you did it, and the reason is not that you’re a terrible person. Enter into your past experience with curiosity and empathy — What else was going on in your life at the time? What stress were you under? What happened before that led you to the place where you made the mistakes you made? What did you believe then that you don’t believe now?
It can also be helpful to acknowledge the complexity of your choices, rather than placing them into categories of “good” or “bad.” Often, there is no perfect choice. Any decision you made may have led to one form of regret or another.
This is not about being self-indulgent or making excuses. It’s about being honest with yourself, and creating the inner safety you need to turn your mistakes into something useful. Unfortunately, people with low self-esteem who don’t know how to treat themselves with compassion can feel too fragile on the inside to make positive changes in their lives.
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How to Deal with Regret: Have a Growth Mindset
Having a growth mindset means understanding that challenges, setbacks, failures, and mistakes are the path to personal growth. We don’t grow when we’re comfortable and everything is going well — we grow when things are difficult and we’re forced to do the hard work of change.
The opposite of a growth mindset is a fixed mindset, which says that who you are today is who you will always be, and that your mistakes and successes are reflections of who you are at your core. If you failed your algebra exam, a fixed mindset tells you that you’re just bad at math, and there’s not much you can do about that. If you lost your job, you’re just not smart or talented enough to compete in your chosen field. You are who you are, so bother trying to change?
Even if you don’t believe these messages intellectually, you may have self-limiting beliefs about how much change and growth is possible for you that are operating on a deep level of your subconscious mind. When you intentionally reframe your regrets as part of your personal growth process, you reject these messages and give yourself permission to try, fail, and try again.
Here’s an exercise that will help you do this. Get out your journal and answer the following questions:
- What was your mistake exactly?
- What led you to make the choice you made?
- What did it teach you about yourself and your values?
- What outcome did you want that you didn’t get?
- How can you create that outcome going forward?
Approaching regret with a growth mindset helps you shift from feeling bad about yourself and helpless to make things better, to feeling empowered to take control of your own future.
Of course, you don’t always have the opportunity to fix your mistakes or change the situations that you’re feeling regret over, and this can be especially hard to accept. Many people find themselves ruminating for months about all of the mistakes they made that led to the failure of a relationship, for example. If you’re dealing with grief and loss after the death of a loved one, it’s very common to feel regret about things you did or didn’t do within the relationship.
If you’re feeling a lot of regret, and it’s not possible to fix your mistake or heal the relationship, then creating closure will be an important part of moving forward from regret. To create closure, you need to construct a narrative in your mind about what happened, and put it into context within your own life story — where you’ve been, where you are now, where you’re going, and what you’ve learned along the way. This work helps you make peace with the past, so you can heal, grow, and move forward.
Have Hope to Deal with Regret
Regret can only be beneficial to you if you have hope — and as long as you’re still breathing, you have every reason to hope. You always have opportunities to grow and change, no matter how old you are, and no matter how many mistakes you’ve made. You have opportunities right now to create different experiences for yourself, and for the people you love.
I mean this in a very real way. Even if you have late stage cancer and only a few days to live, there are notes you can write, amends you can make, and internal work you can do that can transform your regrets into something that is healing and positive for yourself and for others. Redemption is real, and so are second chances. In my time as a counselor, I’ve witnessed a few miracles of redemption myself.
Our mistakes will always be a part of our stories, but they’re not the last chapter as long as we’re still alive. So don’t get defeated. Take wisdom from your regrets and allow them to guide you toward greater growth, integrity, and love.
Support for Dealing with Regret
If regret is standing in the way of a healthy, supportive relationship with yourself, it’s time to get some help for dealing with regret. You deserve the opportunity to learn and grow from your mistakes, rather than feeling trapped or defined by them. If you’d like support from a compassionate counselor or coach on our team, I invite you to schedule a free consultation.
P.S. — For more advice on making friends with dark emotions like regret, check our “emotional wellness” collection of articles and podcasts.
Listen & Subscribe to the Podcast
How to Deal with Regret
The Love, Happiness & Success Podcast with Dr. Lisa Marie Bobby
Music in this episode is by Nico with their song “These Days.” You can support them and their work by visiting their Bandcamp page here: . Under the circumstance of use of music, each portion of used music within this current episode fits under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, i.e., Fair Use. Please refer to copyright.gov if further questions are prompted.