Regret is a mystifying emotion. Often lamented as a time waster, regret does have its utility if properly harnessed. Emotions, both negative and positive, are part of human nature. They are inescapable. The key lies in being able to “domesticate” them; to use emotions to your tactical advantage. Regret is one such emotion.
You’ve been taught to regret nothing in life; that regret is a useless because the past cannot be changed. While true to an extent, this concept needs clarification. Let’s first conceptualize regret. In its rawest form, regret is one of two things.
First, it is the belief that we wasted something. This something could be an experience, an opportunity, or a period of time, all of which revolve around something we didn’t do, but that we now perceive to have been a mistake in judgement. These are the things we wish to have a “do-over” for. An example of this could be the girl you were too shy to talk with, or the job you didn’t take because you thought it was too risky. Regret for what we didn’t do tends to pain us more acutely, as our minds are overcome with the “what if’s” of the inaction.
Second, regret is self-scorn and contempt for something we did do, but that resulted in negative consequences. A simple example could be an argument you had with a friend, where you said some hurtful things that tarnished the relationship. You could be wishing to go back in time to re-living the moment and act in a different way.
So how do we use regret to our advantage? First, let’s re-define it as reflection. If we are reflecting on the past, we are more likely to be searching for tidbit of usefulness to apply to our lives moving forward. It’s all about framing thoughts in the proper mental context. Let me give an example…
Say you were on the subway, and sitting across from you was a beautiful girl. She was alone, and smiled at you several times. Instead of initiating conversation with this girl, you stayed silent. Eventually, she got off the train and you were left alone with your thoughts, kicking yourself for not stepping up and taking action.
There are two ways for you to frame this situation. You can either regret the move you didn’t make or reflect on what happened and what you will do next time. Simply dwelling on what you didn’t do is a waste of time, because that time could be better spent working towards a solution the next time you are put in that situation. The best remedy for inaction is to rectify the situation through action today. Instead of regret, you want to reflect. Tell yourself, “I failed to speak to that girl today, even though I desperately wanted to. The next time I am in the presence of a cute girl, I will overcome my fears and begin a conversation with her.”
Tenacity is key. You must be able to learn and grow from mistakes and inactions. The world’s greatest achievers all have one thing in common: they had far more failures then they did successes. The difference lies in how (and if) they bounced back from these failures. Instead of throwing a pity party, they were driven to improve. They tried again and again and again until something stuck. Successful people have a growth mindset – they believe they can learn and grow from every experience. Failure is a catalyst for improvement. The opposite of this is a fixed mindset. These people experience failure and hate it so much they vow to never experience it again. They simply shut down.
We must always remember that we choose how to react to every situation. It’s our choice if we let failures and “what-ifs” ruin us instead of serving as building blocks towards a more fulfilled life.
The consequences of regret depend on how you frame it. If used by way of reflection, regret can be quite useful. Most people let regret bog them down because they never learn from the experience (or lack thereof). As they get older, they feel they wasted opportunities to “do something different” or “go a different route.” You’ll often hear old-timers say, “if only I did X, then I would have been Y.” These are the words of men who failed to use their inaction as a catalyst for change. Instead, they continued on a path they hated, until they got too old to make a lasting life change. Don’t be that person, and instead, learn to use regret towards building a better YOU.
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