How to fend off regrets

Regret, defined as: “a deep sorrow about a loss of a person or situation one wishes might have been otherwise” is one of the most stressful emotions. Often, the regretful individual holds himself responsible for some action or inaction regarding the loss that he/she is unable to rectify. Learning to abate regrets is beneficial to our wellbeing.

Though regrets are emotional, their physiological mechanisms are now documented. Michael Craig Miller, M.D. Editor in Chief of Harvard Mental Health Letter, writes, “Through advanced neuroimaging techniques we now have evidence that parts of the brain responsible for reasoning and emotion become active when a person experiences regret. Brain scans demonstrate increased orbitofrontal cortex activity in this part of the brain that compares real outcomes with imagined alternatives.”

Regretful individuals engage in rehearsing their sorrow about the scenarios that could have or should have prevented their irreparable loss. People who were unable to mend their relationship with their parent prior to the senior’s demise may carry lifelong regrets. Those who did not profess their love for their departed due to distance or circumstances may feel pain, guilt and prolonged regrets as they keep rehearsing their lost opportunity.

Most decent people assess their actions or inactions as part of their ongoing self-appraisal. They affirm their worth by recording their positive actions and feel humbled and shamed by their less than considerate actions. Thus, we may assume that regrets would rate among the most undesirable feelings.

Yet, Colleen Saffrey of the University of Victoria and colleagues at the University of Illinois found that people expressed high regard for their regretful emotions. Their subjects rated regret as the most highly valued of 11 negative emotions. The subjects stated, “Regret helps me know how to act in the future” or ”Improves my relationships with others.”

Some say, “I don’t think I will do this because I will live to regret it.” The anticipated regret is one of the guiding principles that propel us to act morally. Yet, human nature is still tempted by immediate gratification and may minimize the projected negative outcomes. For example, excessive eating, drinking, gossiping, discrediting others may help us feel temporarily better about ourselves and facilitate bonding with those who feel similarly. Yet, regret may come later and the harm may be permanent.

Considering our actions/words in advance helps us reduce future regrets and increases positive outcomes for others and ourselves. Dr. Miller adds, “Managing regret productively may be an essential ingredient for mental health, a good quality of life, and a positive sense of well-being.”

To fend off regret:

  • Consider the effects of your words/actions on others and on your future self-view.
  • Remember to affirm, compliment and value others regularly to fend off future regrets of “If only…”
  • Err on the side of being appreciative, kind, forgiving and attentive to others, even when their style is not reciprocal.
  • Avoid behaviors you may regret if you could not re-do them. Increase ones that make you feel pleased.




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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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