5 Steps for Moving Forward in Spite of Regrets

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What to do when thinking about “what could have been”

I do not believe in the saying, “Live your life with no regrets.” I don’t think having regrets is good; I think trying to live your life with no regrets will just make you more ashamed or mad at yourself when your brain recalls one of the many decisions you made that you now think was stupid.

We all have regrets. You, like everyone else, made a decision you now regret because 1) you were afraid of failing, or succeeding, 2) the “facts” you considered turned out to be opinions or rationalizations, and 3) there is no way to predict how you will feel in the future.

In his book, Stumbling on Happiness, Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert explores why humans are bad at estimating what will bring them happiness in the future, starting with the illusion that we have any control over future circumstances. We make decision on the future based in past experiences. When life turns out different from what we expected, we blame ourselves for the lack of foresight. The shortcomings of memory give us inadequate information for predicting what will make us happy in the future.

Gilbert also says people regret what they did not do more than they regret what they did.You regret not going to college, not taking a job or business offer, and not spending time with family and friends more than you regret risks you took that didn’t pan out. Your brain deals better with errors of courage than errors of cowardice.

Is it possible that making a different choice would not have made you happier than you are now? There is a tendency to create an overly positive view of “what could have been.”

Regret is often based on false comparison. If, as Psychologist Lloyd J. Thomas says, feelings of failure can be defined as “any state with which you are discontented,” then you might be full of regret because of the endless pursuit for having more money, recognition, or love. How are you defining success, by the stuff you own, number of friends, or the size of your house? You might want to re-evaluate what having enough means before you miss the gifts you have right now.

In a recent blog post, Chris Brogan asks if you would rather be a person who loathes yourself and figures you are just going to fail again, or a person who accepts yourself where you are, who knows how to forgive yourself, and then gets up and starts again?

Practice these 5 steps and answer the questions.

When you are:

  • Angry you are not as successful as you should be
  • Embarrassed or ashamed about not achieving more
  • Blaming yourself for bad choices
  • Wishing you could redo the past
  • Resigning to a mediocre life
  1. Accept your regrets as part of being alive. If there is no way to predict the future, how could you be 100% right about any decision? Some choices were good, others were not. What if you are exactly where you are supposed to be? If life was about learning instead of having, what wisdom do you now have?
  2. Don’t overemphasize what was bad about your choices. When you made the choice, something made you feel happy, safe, or hopeful. Or maybe you got bad advice. What can you learn from your choices that you can use or share with others?
  3. Claim today as the best you have with what you now know. Shake off your sadness, frustration, and anger to see what is next. I just saw the movie, Hello My Name is Doris with the amazing Sally Field. Though it was very funny, it was sad to watch the main character realize she had lost most of her life to her fears. Yet the final message was that Doris finally found her life, the true value of her friends, and many possibilities ahead of her. It is never too late to open your eyes and see what is here now and what could be here tomorrow.
  4. Make time to reflect on what you are grateful for. List three people or things that you have today that you are grateful for. Once you open your heart with gratitude, remind yourself that every choice you made led you to this place where you have much to be grateful for.
  5. If you are dwelling in regret, change something. Even taking a small step will help. There is value in the statement, “Fake it until you make it.” Smiling will increase the chemicals in your body that will ease your stress. Doing something positive for yourself or someone else will shift your perspective. All you need to do is to take one step forward to change your life. Go for a walk, make brownies for a friend, put on some nice clothes and visit a museum.

My friend and coach Minx Boren is a wonderful poet. The following verse is from her book, Healing is a Journey.2

sometimes the greatest gift we can give ourselves is

to walk away

to walk out from under

to walk into the daylight

and to warm our souls


when we return

our absence will have allowed for a shift

and the burdens seem

somehow easier than before

then sometimes

we must remember to be grateful

and to rest in the assuredness

that we are enough after all

For me—I regret many decisions I have made, I am sad some things turned out the way they did, and I am happy with the life I have. The path that led me here was bumpy, yet here I am healthy and content. Life would be different if I made other decisions, but would it be better? I’ll never know. I see my regrets and keep moving forward with gratitude.

Daniel Gilbert, Stumbling on Happiness. Random House, 2006. Page 197.

2 with permission from Minx Boren, Healing Is a Journey. Blue Mountain Arts, 2014, p.10.

For more ideas on dealing with how to shift from regret, worry, and blame, read Marcia’s book, Wander Woman: How High-Achieving Women Find Contentment and Direction 

Marcia Reynolds Psy.D.

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