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Free Yourself from Regret

6 Sure-Shot Steps To Turn Negative Emotions Into Positive Action

We have all felt sometimes that life would have been better if we had taken a different path.

If only you had taken that job, ended that relationship sooner or moved to another city, everything would have been perfect.

It’s human nature to hang on to feelings of regret. If not resolved, such emotions can overwhelm us with stress and anxiety.

Someone holding a sparkler from below the water.

However, you can turn negative emotions like regret into powerful sources of inspiration. We can use the “If only I …” thoughts into tools that motivate us to move forward.

Research indicates that that obsessing over regrets has a negative impact on our mood and sleep, can increase impulsivity, and become a risk factor for binge eating and misusing alcohol.

When we are stuck in the loop of ‘what ifs’, we can recalibrate to lead a healthy, happy and meaningful life by adopting evidence-based strategies of emotional management.

Here are six proven ways to achieve freedom from regret and move ahead toward a more fulfilling future:

1. Acknowledge your regrets

We tend to push away pain. But research has shown that suppressed emotions diminish our capacity for happiness and can potentially manifest as physical problems.

A study published in The Journal of General Psychology (2014) found that wallowing in regret can compromise our judgement and undermine our capability to perform simple tasks.

So instead of ignoring your regrets or ruminating about perceived mistakes, we should acknowledge the experience. Start by observing your thoughts.

Relax your face and hands, and try to accept how you feel now, not worry that you’ll be feeling this way forever.

Researchers also found that when people can find a silver lining in their regret, they can think more clearly.

The trick is to avoid obsessing and pull out a lesson that can be applied in future situations

Neal Roese, a professor of marketing specialising in the psychology of judgment and decision-making.

Take time to notice how you managed a recent regret.

Did you pretend it was less important than it did? Or did you fall into a spiral of shame?

When you figure out how you navigate such situations, you can start using your emotions to your advantage.

2. Pause your obsessing

It’s essential to learn how to stop a spiral of regret since thinking continually about it will ensure that you feel worse.

You need to develop a set of concrete actions that you can engage when you feel yourself falling into the quicksand of regrets. The goal is to stop this type of thinking before it saps your energy.

You could list your favourite films or authors in alphabetical order. When you start focussing on a project, your mind is less likely to get derailed.

Another idea: when you feel the onset of strong emotions, dip your face in ice water.

“People are convinced about this strategy once they get past the idea of plunging forwards into a bowl of ice water,” says Dr Kathryn Korslund, an expert in dialectical behaviour therapy that teaches people how to manage their emotions.

She says that it works by lowering your body temperature and heart rate, consequently preventing your feelings from intensifying.

If that sounds too jarring, pop an ice cube in your mouth and focus on the sensations.

These activities are not a permanent solution. The aim is to regulate your emotions for a few minutes, then tackle your situation with a little more clarity.

3. Revisit your regret

In the same study that found that regret diminishes our problem-solving ability, participants were asked to read the following statements and recall at least one benefit from a regrettable event:

  • We can view everything from a different perspective
  • There is a positive value associated with every experience

Subsequently, participants exhibited improved performance on the same tasks they completed before finding the silver lining.

Focusing on what you have gained can help you shift from the negative impact of regret. Remember, the emotions linked to your regret story is just that: a story.

Psychologists label regretful ‘if only’ stories as counterfactual thinking because it’s impossible to know how things would have turned out if you had made a different choice.

4. Be compassionate toward yourself

Four hundred students at the University of California, Berkeley participated in a research program wherein they were asked to write about their biggest regrets.

It was concluded that self-compassion, and not beating ourselves up, contributes to positive adjustment in the face of guilt, shame and regret.


The researchers noted that “forgiveness stems from viewing one’s shortcomings or failures as a part of the common human experience”.

Self-compassion leads to more remarkable personal improvement through heightened acceptance.

Imagine your therapist trying to address your spell of regret.

Would he or she focus on what you did wrong? Or would you be encouraged to find the real, practical lessons you can learn from the experience?

When all else fails: talk to yourself like you’d talk to a friend.

5. Clarify what matters

When you are overwhelmed by feelings of regret, use the emotion as a springboard to examine what really is important for you.

One of my clients came to see me after feeling guilty about losing her temper when she speaks to people.

Together, we leveraged her remorse to pinpoint the virtues she most cherishes.

“I care about being nice rather than being right” was one of her positive traits – since focusing on the damage already done wouldn’t do her or her relationships any good.

Ask yourself why you are feeling such profound regret, and work backwards to identify the values that are associated with your feelings.

Then use that as motivation for personal growth.

6. Take action

The Japanese technique of repairing broken pottery is called Kintsugi, which means ‘golden joinery’. It has its roots in Buddhist philosophy.

The process highlights the item’s imperfections, which are considered part of its history.

Repairing pottery by this method adds to its beauty – traditional Kintsugi often uses gold or silver to fix the cracks.

Make a list of regrets, big and small, then think hard how to take steps to remedy whatever is haunting you.

The ultimate solution for anticipating regret isn’t feeling worthless or overthinking.

It’s thoughtfully and practically pursuing solutions, and using the wisdom gained through self-reflection to act positively.

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