The ability to regret something is a great skill to have for any animal, survival-wise. When you’re reliving and kicking yourself for something in the past–and feeling sad, guilty, ashamed, or other unpleasant emotion–your mind is trying to do you a favor. It’s trying to make something very clear: you shouldn’t let it happen again if you want things to be better in the future.
You probably realized this point pretty quickly, but that doesn’t necessarily mean your mind is done harping on about it. Much like an ill-advised social media posting, once it’s there, it’s there, and your mind might seem like it’ll never let you live it down. Unfortunately, as regret piles up, it can have a long-term effect on your confidence and self-esteem that, ironically, impairs your ability to act decisively in your best interests in the future. I have included three ways to steer yourself toward a regret-free life below.
The Mechanics of Regret
If you want to reduce the amount of regret your mind produces, it’s helpful, first, to be aware of a few underlying factors that are at work. One is that your mind abhors loose ends of any kind, and it will nag you to tie them up. This is apparent whenever you’re called away in the middle of something, and your mind returns over and over to your unfinished business.
Another is that short-term regrets tend to concern something you’ve done, while the ones that haunt you over the long term are more likely to concern things you haven’t done. Like the previous point, this phenomenon has been repeatedly demonstrated in experiments.
The third is that the single largest cause of inaction is fear. It’s not only a natural response to known threats. Your mind also tends to play it safe when you have incomplete information, filling in the blanks on its own, and often making assumptions that amplify risk and justify inaction.
This, in turn, can begin a snowball effect whereby you put your head in the sand, taking in less and less information and creating more and more blanks. It’s not unlike the child who, fearing the monster under her bed, pulls the blanket up over her eyes, letting her imagination run even wilder. You end up making increasingly uninformed decisions—the kinds of decisions you’re more likely to regret.
With these factors in mind, here are three ways you can get out of your own way and let your mind steer you naturally toward a more regret-free life, and even help the process along.
1. Stay in Fact-Finding Mode
If your mind is filling in blanks with too many fear-multiplying assumptions, then you need to minimize the number of blanks. Knowledge is fear’s worst enemy: just ask a parent who has banished their child’s under-bed monster simply by turning the lights on and taking a quick look.
Nurturing a sense of curiosity and openness to input keeps your information stores topped off and helps you establish a more productive response to uncertainty: relaxing into it and surveying the facts and the blanks just as they are. You’ll be less likely to retreat to your inner world of doubt and paralyzing assumptions, and better able to plan the smartest course of action.
2. Aim for the Abstract
Research shows that when you’re doing something for the purpose of acquiring rewards like money, belongings, and fame, you’re less likely to resume that activity once you pause. In turn, that makes failure—and regret—more likely. On the other hand, when you’re pursuing more abstract goals, like qualities, traits, or feelings you’d like to have, your urge to get back to work is stronger. (It so happens that people pursuing those kinds of goals also tend to be happier.)
Therefore, make your long-term goals more intangible (“I want to enjoy close connections with others”) than concrete (“I want to be married and have two children within five years”). Yes, it can be helpful to have concrete short-term milestones because these provide reference points for you to chart and enjoy your progress. But aiming for the abstract will keep you more persistent and happier in the long run.
3. Select an Action and Take It
Bear in mind that your best bet in general is: when in doubt, act. For one thing, if you always make the best decision possible at the time, using the best information you have available—and you’ll have good information if you stay in fact-finding mode—regret won’t get a foothold.
Plus, taking action is a win-win for you in the long run. If you’re successful, great. But even if you get it wrong, remember that things you do wrong won’t bother you as long as failing to take action will. In other words, it’s better to regret something you did for a little while than to regret something that you didn’t do forever.
Jim Hjort, LCSW, is founder of the Right Life Project, where he helps people overcome roadblocks to self-actualization as a licensed psychotherapist, Right Life Coach, and mindfulness meditation instructor. The Right Life Project helps you understand the ways you can work with the different dimensions of your life (psychological, social, physical, and vocational) to be happier and more fulfilled, and to reach your full potential. You can follow Jim on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram.