Dr. Seth Meyers, Clinical Psychologist

Dr. Seth Meyers, Clinical Psychologist

Thursday, January 30, 2014

LIFE TIP: How to Turn Regrets Into Positives

When I first heard, I was stunned: You don’t have any regrets at all? Not even one, so small it could fit in, say, a thimble or a small fry container? I was talking to a woman who appeared to be in her 60s in the waiting room of a doctor’s office, and she spoke proudly of not having a single regret. “Not even one,” she boasted, certain she’d cornered the market on personal wisdom.

As I sat next to her, I reflected on the nature of regrets and our society’s insistence that we should live life without any regrets at all - as if regrets are the kind of poison that kills. Reflecting on my own life, as well as my training as a clinical psychologist, I thought about how conventional wisdom has it wrong: Regrets can actually be one of the most valuable experiences a person can have. Though I don’t recommend that anyone actively seek them out, people shouldn’t turn them away at the door either. Regrets can be your friend, and I’ll tell you how.

Definition: A regret is a sorrowful or remorseful feeling that results from the belief that you should have acted differently than you did in a particular respect. Regrets can range from insignificant (“I regret not going to that party”) to monumental (“I regret being so hard on my daughter”). 

Why are regrets so bad, and what can we do when we have them?

To think that we can live life without a major regret or two suggests that we’re somehow supposed to be perfect or infallible. What is important is not to avoid regrets but rather to push yourself to learn from them.

A few years ago, I provided counseling for a few months to a man who had depression and needed help pulling himself out of a rut. Having retired several years before, he had time on his hands, enough to start spiraling into self-blaming thoughts about the bad – or nonexistent? – relationship he had with his grown son. The negative thoughts and feelings took a nasty toll, causing him to give up and surrender to the regret that he wasn’t present enough for his son when he was young. Simply put, he had to reframe his feelings in a positive way to start feeling – you guessed it – more positive. He had to understand that having this crucial regret could actually be a positive: He could use it as motivation to change his behavior and be as committed as possible going forward with his son. In other words, it’s too bad that he didn’t know better the first time around, but acknowledging his regret – instead of trying to sweep it under the rug and deny it altogether – was the very thing that could help him improve his relationship with his son now and in the future.

Aging comes with some unexpected beauties of life, but one is definitely the psychological growth you experience as you traverse the lifespan. As people age, they have the breadth of many years of life experience to draw from, and more mature men and women can often see the big picture better than younger folks.  

What This Means for You:

The next time you start beating yourself up about something you didn’t do or should have done more of in the past, catch yourself and identify the thoughts and feelings for what they truly reflect: a regret. Big, oily, red. I know, they’re awful at first. But take a second longer look and you might find there’s another side. Perhaps the regret can light the fire under you to move forward and improve upon that old regretful behavior, allowing you to become a more positive person, in general, along the way.

Common Regret Road Blocks

Getting stuck feeling guilty, depressed, angry, or bitter reflects what I call “Regret Road Blocks.” These pesky feelings seriously interfere with your ability to feel happy and positive. What’s more, when you get stuck in any of these feelings, you don’t feel as if you have control over your behavior. The more you focus on what you can control, the more positive you will feel.

What the Research Says

Behavioral health investigators have studied regrets for many years in the attempt to understand their function and effect on overall well-being. A recent study from Concordia University (2011), for example, suggests that having extreme regrets can actually be linked to illness, meaning that hanging onto negative feelings without a sense of control to change things is bad for your physical health, too.

Even if you’re on the fence about whether you want to dig up an old regret and try to improve that behavior, try spinning regrets into positives for the benefit of your physical health. Holding onto negative feelings is toxic – and you deserve better than that.

Takeaway Message: There are always at least two ways to look at the same thing. When it comes to regrets, you can choose to see focus on the positive or the negative. If you commit to changing for the better, you can come to see regrets as life lessons learned.

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