Regret is a universal emotion that is felt by us all. The emotion of regret can be very powerful, and if we let it, regret can take over our lives. There are people who are good at managing their regrets, and there are some of us who are not so great at it. For a long time, my feelings of regret dominated my life, particularly during stressful and unhappy times. I would lie awake at night thinking of all the things that I hadn’t done, the mistakes I had made, and the opportunities I had stuffed up.
I would act out scenes in my head, which always began with questions such as: “ What if I had said this? What if I had done this?” These regret role-plays could go on for hours. And, of course, the opportunity for a good night’s sleep was lost. I would wake up tired, with no energy, feeling unhappy. This was not a great way to start the day.
I want to live my life so that my nights are not full of regrets. – D. H. Lawrence
The more tired I felt, the unhappier I was about my life. I finally got to a point in my life where I realized that living my life full of regret was causing me immense unhappiness. I didn’t want to live an unhappy life, so I decided to change it.
This, of course, is easier said than done. Finding a way to manage the negative impact of regret in my life was not going to be achieved in a day, a week, or even a month. I decided that I would take one step at a time rather than rush off and look for ways where I would undergo some form of personal transformation in the hope that my regrets would magically disappear.
I knew that my regrets were never going to go away. I just had to get better at managing the negative influence they were having on my life.
The Psychology of Regret
The first step I decided to take was to educate myself about the emotion of regret. What I learned from reading various articles and books enabled me to better understand and manage my thoughts and feelings around my regrets in life.
Two American psychologists, Neale J. Roese and Mike Morrison, conducted a National Survey on regret. The results from the survey showed that the six biggest regrets that we have in life are based on education, career, romance, parenting, self-improvement, and leisure.
Regret is an essential part of the human experience – something everybody has as long as they have life goals. Rather than avoid it, it’s better to try to take some insights out of the regret experience. – Neal J. Roese, Professor of Psychology
This quote by Neale J. Roese was, for me, an “aha moment.” Up until this point, I realized that I was living my life trying to avoid having regrets. Looking back now, I think I had become slightly brainwashed by reading too many “personal development” books, or maybe I just misinterpreted what I was reading about regret.
Somehow, I had created a belief where I thought that by having no regrets I would have a happier life. I got it so wrong, and when I read what Neale J. Roese said about regret, I realized that regret was actually an important part of my life experience. What I needed to sort out was how to deal with those thoughts and feelings of regret that were having a negative impact on my life.
Opportunity Breeds Regret
The report on the national survey talked about the Opportunity Principle and how our actions or failure to take action around opportunities in our life can create deep feelings of regret.
Another interesting fact about regret is that if an opportunity is denied or never presents itself to you then you are more likely to rationalize these feelings and move on. However, when you fail to take action when the opportunity presents itself to you then, you are more likely to have deeper feelings of regret. It is these regrets that are more likely to keep you awake at night.
Mark Twain’s quote below sums up really well how your failure to take action can stay with you forever.
Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. – Mark Twain
By committing to take action, I now embrace opportunities. I don’t focus on the outcome of the opportunity. I focus on how I choose to respond to the opportunity. By doing this, I started to find that I would spend less time thinking at night about all the opportunities that I had failed to take up.
Regret, the Power of Choice, and a Good Night’s Sleep
All is not lost, however, when it comes to “lost opportunities” in our life, as we all have within us the power of choice. The benefit that lost opportunity and regret offers us is the opportunity to choose to take corrective action.
Regret actually serves a purpose in our lives as it can remind us of what we need to do differently to move forward in our lives. We can choose to take action and create more positive feelings about our actions. When we do this, our feelings of regret diminish, and once again, we are less likely to be kept awake playing out scenarios of regret in our head. We are more likely to be enjoying a good night’s sleep because we chose to take action. That is what makes us happy!
I realized that for me to have better night’s sleep, the more courageous I choose to be about stepping out and taking action, the better I felt about myself.
Going to bed feeling happy about myself was a key step for me to take control of the feelings of regret that were keeping me awake at night.
Regret and Taking Action
Taking action was one key thing that I could do right now that could reduce the negative influence that regret had in my life. If I did this one thing consistently, over and over again, I would be guaranteed to get a good night’s sleep forever. If I keep taking action every time an opportunity presents itself to me and not worry about the outcome, the less likely I am to have thoughts of regret.
Here are three actionable strategies that I implemented in my life that helped me take control of my regrets so that I could consistently get a great night’s sleep
1. Move onto future opportunities
Regrets are part of life, and the only way they can control our lives is if we let them. The more we think about our regrets the more influence they have over us. Dwelling on our regrets immobilizes us, and we eventually become fearful and unhappy about our lives.
Recognize your regrets, acknowledge them, and then leave them. Turn your attention to future opportunities – don’t dwell on the past.
2. Accept that you cannot change what has been done
There is a great book I read about regret written by Arthur Freeman called Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda: Overcoming Regrets, Mistakes, and Missed Opportunities.
In this book, Arthur Freeman talks about how regret will quickly disappear once we realize that the situation is done and finished. There is no going back, and we can’t change what has happened. The secret to dealing with our regret starts at the moment we decide what we are going to do next. It is our attachment to the past that breeds these feelings of regret, and once we let go of the past, we take more control over our future.
When you are being kept awake at night by your regrets, you are living your life in the past. But you have no control over the past. The more you look toward the future, the more control you have over your life.
When you are lying in your bed at night, the first thing you do is think of one future opportunity that makes you feel good. Do not go to bed if you cannot think of a future opportunity because, trust me, those regrets will come flooding into your thoughts.
If you are really struggling, read Arthur Freeman’s book as he provides lots of tools and strategies on how to unblock your attachment to the past.
3. Make your regrets work for you
Turn your regrets into lessons of learning. Put your regrets into context, acknowledge them, and then use them to motivate you to take more positive action.
This is a strategy that I have used a lot, and it works. I always wanted to be a writer, speaker and coach, but for many years, I did nothing about it. I would lie awake thinking about my failure to take action, which of course meant that I never did anything about it for years. Then my parents died suddenly, and my life was thrown into chaos and pain.
As I went through the process of healing in my life, I realized that my regrets were not serving me well. In fact, they were preventing me from living the life I desired, and I needed to change that. So, I started writing with no expectation – I just started. I didn’t want to live with a regret that I had never given it a go as a writer.
Here I sit, today, writing this article and so thankful that I took a regret and made it work for me.
I still do have the occasional sleepless night thinking about what I should have done, but my regrets today are not consuming my life. I have consistently more good night’s sleeps now than I had when my regrets controlled me and kept me awake night after night.