“Regrets are as personal as fingerprints”

~Margaret Culkin Banning


By Cindy Trevitt, Registered Professional Counsellor and Master Practitioner in Clinical Counselling

Regret is a painful logical and emotional response to personal acts we wish we had not done whether intentionally, accidentally or uncontrollably. We experience strong feelings of grief, sadness and humiliation. It can remind us how foolish, reckless, careless, insensitive, limited, inept or unaware we were or can be. We regret choices we’ve made or didn’t make. Afterwards we are haunted with questions demanding an explanation: Why did I do that? What if I hadn’t done that? Why didn’t I do that?

We might develop unconscious defense mechanisms to guard against the admission of accountability or to suppress our grief. We might protect our own ego by avoiding people or we might evade personal responsibility altogether. Admission of our mistakes is an emotional process involving grief and loss over damage to our relationships or sabotage to our selves as opposed to holding on to a defensive guilt. Refusing to mourn invalidates our experience and is a rejection of reality. With this type of coping we can become mere survivors going through the motions preventing us from growing or engaging in close relationships.

We recollect regrets and cringe. We hold it fresh in our mind as if no time has passed. People can spend a lifetime wincing over a regrettable moment. While there are truly some terrible things that we may never forget, often times, this re-hashing is evidence of the refusal to process and mourn the reality of events in order to recover and move on with life.

There are those who say, “Regret nothing” or that they, “Wouldn’t do anything differently”. Living a life without making mistakes or having regrets is extraordinarily difficult. A lifetime of choices entails some failures to act wisely. On the other hand, if we accept and face our regrets and learn from them with the intention of continuing to live life fully and bravely, this could be beneficial because, in fact, most people report regretting what they didn’t do rather than what they did do.

“We will spend our lives remembering what we wished we did or didn’t do more than we will recall how things went satisfactorily.”~ from Regret, A Film Documentary by Christopher Richardson

Some people will become risk-averse in the hopes of avoiding future loss. The anxious mind will become more anxious. A single bad event erroneously becomes a lifetime of dreaded possibilities to steer clear of. On the healthy end of the scale our learned cautiousness helps us to become practical and carefully consider our choices but on the neurotic end of the scale we avoid any risk and live a fear-based life that is highly restricted and oppressed.

Some people will draw the mistaken conclusion that because they committed the regrettable act it validates some negative self-view. One act does not define us. We all have at least one regrettable action or inaction (more like many, many) but none of us wants to, nor should, be judged based on our worst day.

“If you’re an optimist,
regrets are speed bumps,
if you’re a pessimist,
they’re mountains.”~ from Regret, A Film Documentary
by Christopher Richardson

“Woulda, shoulda, coulda”

We tell ourselves we ‘should’ have done something and we are, “shoulding all over ourselves.” These are regrets of inactions:

  • Should have said something.
  • Should have completed or gotten advanced education.
  • Should have worked harder at school or work.
  • Should have pursued a career or professional interest.
  • Should have been more assertive or stood up to the bully.
  • Should have stayed in touch with friends.
  • Should have tried harder to have a relationship or family.
  • Should have worked harder to set own goals and have more choices.
  • Should have spent more time and shown more affection, support or appreciation in relationships.
  • Should have married later.
  • Should have exercised more or taken better care of myself.
  • Should have got help for alcoholism.
  • Should have learned a trade.
  • Should have gotten help for depression or anxiety.
  • Should have been more involved in cultural pursuits and community.
  • Should have travelled more.
  • Should have paid more attention to finances.
  • Should have had more children or had fewer children or shouldn’t have had them so early or so late.
  • Should have spent more time with children or grandchildren when they were young.
  • Should have moved to a preferred location.
  • Should have divorced.
  • Should have paid more attention to social life.
  • Should have insisted that children finish college.
  • Should have apologized.
  • Should have developed a better self-image and more self-confidence.
  • Should have made a decision sooner.
  • Should have had more fun and been less serious.


Then there are the common regrets of actions:

  • Shouldn’t have married or married so early.
  • Shouldn’t have made work so important.
  • Shouldn’t have made poor financial choices.
  • Shouldn’t have made sex so important in choice of partner.
  • Shouldn’t have retired so early.
  • Shouldn’t have returned to parents home.
  • Shouldn’t have been so mean, unforgiving or intolerant to a loved one.
  • Shouldn’t have ended it with my partner.
  • Shouldn’t have had sex when I didn’t want to.
  • Shouldn’t have drunk so much.
  • Shouldn’t have pushed that joke so far.
  • Shouldn’t have made that rash purchase.
  • Shouldn’t have started smoking.
  • Shouldn’t have had an affair.


What now?

Much like our first experience of getting burned and feeling the pain long after, regret teaches us to remember what it feels like to contradict our values. It helps us think and conduct ourselves differently. Regret teaches us all social harmony.

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”~Maya Angelou

Be clear on what your regret is about. It’s hard to deal with what you don’t know. Admit why the regretful event happened if it was within your control. Consider what really motivated your actions and get honest with yourself. Sometimes we’re in a relationship that is putting us in the position of behaving poorly and we need to make a decision about that relationship. Sometimes we have valid grievances with someone or are displacing that onto an undeserving and unsuspecting individual. Face what’s really bothering you and do something mature, assertive and constructive. Reflect on how your words or actions affect others.

Accept responsibility for your actions. Allowing others to vent can be greatly helpful to their healing and could help save your relationship even if it doesn’t change the past. Also allow them time to grieve the loss. Keep in mind that the regret you hold may be greater than others even recall.

Apologize wholeheartedly and genuinely. Most people report feeling significantly better when they are entirely truthful, hold themselves accountable and apologize sincerely. Half-hearted or partial apologies can result in feeling almost as bad and are usually ineffective.

Be realistic. It could be that you were under pressure or had limited time or were pressured to take action before you were ready. Don’t be too hard on yourself.

“When men speak ill of thee, live so as nobody may believe them.”~Plato

In any case, what you should have done is irrelevant now. Focus on what you can control now. Weighing imaginary alternative outcomes is dwelling on what could have been instead of what is. This type of rumination keeps you mired in misery. It is magical thinking to believe that if you reflect about it enough you will somehow change the past.

“If you are depressed, you are living in the past. If you are anxious, you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”~Lao Tzu

Endless ponderings and self-blame keeps people from engaging with life and can lead to a depressed state. Finding a way to let go and move on is imperative. Sometimes people are stuck in guilt as if the only remedy for guilt is suffering. No amount of guilt or suffering is going to change what happened. While it’s normal to feel guilty for a time, in the long run guilt and suffering are fruitless and only give you the illusion of doing something.

Sometimes people believe if they stop feeling regret or guilt it means they are apathetic. This is a myth also. The fact that you felt regret or guilt means you have a conscience but in due course you need to find forgiveness and move on.

If you feel it might be more humane to alleviate your suffering, try doing something challenging and constructive in the name of making reparations such as donating to a charity. Don’t do something so harmful you feel regret again. Try something symbolic like writing down your regret; keeping it in your wallet for a year; then burning it and scattering the ashes while saying goodbye.

Allow yourself to mourn your regret for as long as necessary. Often people rush to being ‘reasonable’ or ‘positive’ too soon. Allow your emotion time to be felt and processed naturally until it is released. Allow occasional recollections to occur – this is only natural. But if it repeatedly happens, reflect on how you might be unnecessarily punishing yourself and how this is a maladaptive response as opposed to a functional response.

Have compassion for yourself. You must understand and accept that you are an imperfect human being and you will be inadequate, disappointing and incorrect at times. You will fumble, make mistakes, and miss something. It is a fantasy to think you can always be right and even being ‘right’ is subjective.

Remember to have consideration for others who do regrettable things. Most of us are already our own worst judges.

Regrets hang around when there is no resolution. It is possible, human and normal to have a few regrets that you have for the rest of your life. Forgive yourself and move on with your life. It need not define you.

Try to remember the innumerable times when you lived up to your value system. It’s likely you’re a good person, well intended and try your best most of the time – focus on that.

What can you learn from it? Self-acceptance. Given who you were, what you were, when you were, this is the decision you made. You’ve learned and grown since then.

If you wish to copy this material to other publications please ask for permission by writing cindy@mycounsellor.ca.
Thanks for your friendship.

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