Managing Feelings — 01 January 2004
How to deal with feeling regret

Regretting our actions or words entails looking back at ourselves with judgment and sorrow. Feeling regret is considered by some to be the hardest emotion to contend with, because it is a compounded emotion. Its unremitting remorse may be accompanied by intense guilt, shame, and self-reproach. It is a feeling worth avoiding.

Some of the types of regret one may feel are Regret of circumstances, Regret of actions taken or withheld, Regret of choices and Regret of words and conduct toward others.

The regret of circumstances is the feeling pursuant to being in a situation that unexpectedly ended up being harmful to oneself or others. For example, having been at the world trade center at 9/11/01 and being injured. This type of regret does not involve guilt, shame or self-reproach. It is easier to recover from it though it may still involve reliving the trauma in one’s memory, dreams and daytime thoughts with sadness, pain and horror.

Another type of regret is of actions taken or withheld. The individual who drove while intoxicated and caused a car accident in which someone else was seriously injured or died may have profound suffering of regret for the rest of his life. Not intervening to stop a cruel act or comment toward another person, is an example of a regrettable inaction.

Since regret has to do with the past and can not be re-done, it can not be easily remediated in the present. Even in non-traumatic occurrences people feel deep pain about their old behavior as they gain new insights. Some parents experience deep regret and shame about their upbringing practices and wish that they could redo what they now know was harmful behavior toward their children.

People may regret choices they made in life about their education, careers, business, purchases, friends, family, and other important decisions. They tell themselves that had they taken another route their present life would have been easier. In some cases that may well be true. For example, having gotten in trouble with the law at a younger age did deprive some people of productive years of freedom, while serving time in jail. In other cases, the regret is based on untested beliefs that only keep those individuals feeling badly about themselves. Assuming that had they chosen another career in life they would have been more successful, may or may not be true.

Probably the most common deep regrets people have are not of circumstances that were beyond their control or choices they made in life but of behavior or words that have damaged their self-worth. When people behave in ways that contradict their values they live to regret the damage done to others and to their sense of wholesomeness.

Some people review their youthful conduct with regret about their promiscuity, minor or major infractions of the law, callousness towards their parents, disrespect of elders or selfish behavior. Others may feel shame and sorrow about their unkind attitude toward some peers such as; bullying, exclusion, gossip, betrayal, name calling, spreading lies, bigotry, racism, or sexism and other ways of demeaning others to promote themselves.

Every additional season of our lives adds more past to review. Those who can look back at themselves with the comfort and few regrets are people who followed their conscience and found greater ease in their emotional life. Those who suffer from regrets are advised to find ways to alleviate their pain.

When the regret has to do with conduct toward others, true repentance and apology with redress, may reduce discomfort. When it is not possible to undo the harm, one may concentrate on helping others to restore his or her view of self as a decent human being. We often find counselors, mentors and role models born out of rehabilitated people who see their mission in life to help others recover as they have done. Parents who regret their old ways may become wonderful grandparents and help their grandchildren benefit from their new insights and wisdom. The regrets about the past may incapacitate us or propel us toward healthier, more loving and decent conduct.

It is important to avoid today the words and acts that may become the source of future regret. Very often we KNOW that our about to be taken action is a compromising one, indecent, unfair, immoral or unkind to others. If we heed this instinctual knowledge, we may spare ourselves the pain of future regret.

In all relationships it is wise to use the golden rule. If you would appreciate the behavior you are about to undertake toward your partner if it were done to you, then this is a healthy act. Spare all others. The sarcastic shaming words, the selfish disregard of a partner’s need, the contemptuous gestures, or the unkind deeds may serve our purpose at the moment, but since they are WRONG they will plague us later.

Internal peace and self-liking may be synonymous with fair treatment of others and moral living. All decent people know that their own internal monitor will not allow them to respect themselves while acting in a regrettable manner. We have been blessed with a conscience that will not rest while we aggress against others.

To avoid the pains of regret you need to:

  • Review your past with forgiveness and remorse.
  • Take action to remediate what you can and understand what was out of your control.
  • Repair past actions with positive ones in the present.
  • Refrain from behaving in ways that you KNOW will add to your future regrets.
  • Acting to avoid regret is one way toward decent conduct.
  • Remember that your view of yourself is the primary source of self-esteem and YOU can keep it healthy.
  • The less you find yourself saying “if only”, the happier you will
    be and the more likely you are to be acting in a non-regrettable
    way.

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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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