Moving on From Regret

Stephanie Specht's picture
By Stephanie Specht on July 31, 2018

Perhaps it was a decision that completely changed your life and still haunts you to this day. Or maybe it is something simple that keeps popping into your head and you just can’t shake it.

Whatever it is, simply telling yourself to forget it and move on is sometimes not that easy.

So, how can you move on from regret?

According to Robert L. Trestman, Ph.D., M.D., chair of Psychiatry & Behavioral Medicine at Carilion Clinic, there are two important factors to consider.

Could It Be Depression?

“Many people who persistently focus on past events, whether those events were under their control or not, may actually be depressed,” he explained. “How we perceive the world and the choices we make are significantly influenced by our mood. If our mood is depressed, we are much more likely to interpret things in the most negative way.”

Dr. Trestman goes on to explain that often once the person’s depression is treated, much of the regrets that loom large in their minds become a thing of the past.

So, it might not be that life choice or action holding you back, but your mental health.

If depression is the culprit, there tends to be a pattern of symptoms that go along with it, such as: 

  • Disruption in sleep
    • Sleeping too little or too much
    • Not able to stay asleep
    • Waking up early and not being able to fall back asleep
  • Changes in appetite
    • Loss of appetite and losing weight
    • Eating too much and gaining weight
  • Inability to take pleasure in things that used to bring you joy
  • Inability to concentrate and perform well at work or school
  • Sense of hopeless, guilt or worthlessness
  • Thoughts of passive suicide
    • Wishing you would not wake up in the morning
  • Thoughts of active suicide
    • Thinking of ways to kill yourself

“Any significant number of those would suggest that depression may be what is causing someone to have a difficult time to letting go,” noted Dr. Trestman. “The good thing is that depression is highly treatable.”

No, It’s Just You!

The other factor to consider when it comes to that nagging regret is simply your personality.

“Some of us are much more likely to ruminate or have a hard time just saying, ‘ok that happened,’ and letting go of it,” said Dr. Trestman.

As we all know, changing our personality is not exactly easy. Nor is it the answer, says Dr. Trestman, who describes what is needed instead is a shift in strategy.  

“In general, when it is a trait that has been established for a while, simply saying, ‘don’t do it,’ isn’t very successful,” he explained. “People need to learn new coping strategies and develop new skills that allow them to actively practice alternative ways of thinking and behaving.”

Dr. Trestman suggested taking baby steps first. For example, if someone being rude to you is something you would normally go back to and brood upon numerous times throughout the day (or days), don’t think about it as your own deficit. 

“In the majority of cases, it has nothing to do with you,” noted Dr. Trestman.
Instead, try this:

  • Actively acknowledge that it is not something that you did
  • Recognize that you don’t know what caused that person’s behavior
  • Substitute your usual rumination with a plan for something new. For instance, what you are going to work on that day and start prepping for that.

In addition, popular relaxation techniques, breathing exercises or mindfulness practices are designed to help you break the cycle of rumination and regret.  

“These techniques are intended to help people pay attention to the present moment and eliminate rumination because your mind is now focused on the current moment, leaving no room to keep going back to distressing events,” explained Dr. Trestman.

“If you get in the habit of focusing on positive things it will become far easier to pay attention to the good things and let go of regrets from the past,” he added.

Reflecting on Your Mistakes

But all of this does not mean that making a mistake is a bad thing. Quite the contrary!

“The only way not to make a mistake is to do nothing at all,” noted Dr. Trestman. “Anytime we are going to be proactive, anytime we are going to grow, we are going to try new and different things.”

After all, don’t we learn far more from our mistakes than we do when things are going well?

Reflecting on a failure is not the same as ruminating, but make sure that your reflection is a defined exercise.

“Something that we use commonly in cognitive behavioral therapy, called functional analysis, is usually focused on a very specific event,” said Dr. Trestman. “It focuses on something that happened, what your response was and what were the consequences of it.”

Patients are encouraged to write that down, as well as what the alternatives were and what behaviors they could have chosen for a more positive outcome. 

“This process allows you to turn that experience from something that would otherwise be saddening or humiliating into an opportunity to learn how to do better next time,” said Dr. Trestman. “It is important to think of your mistakes not as regrets or as a personal failure, but rather as an event that occurred that can empower you to grow and be more resilient in the future.”

So, as you go about your day and the mistakes or regrets seem to be piling up in your head, stop and just remember that you can’t go back.

All you can do is change your behavior today and prepare yourself to be much better in the future.

Events that could be interpreted as failures are simply part of the process of getting better!

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