The Positive Power of Regret


By Yvonne Milosevic

You gotta love Scottie P. from the We’re the Millers, with his credo “no ragrets.” While it sounds bold and aspirational, in reality, most of us do harbor some kind of regret. Maybe you wish you had chosen a different major in college or had pursued a different career path. Or, perhaps you wonder how life might have turned out if you were still with “the one that got away.”

We often imagine that things could have turned out better if only we had made the wiser choice back at that fork in the road. Do you find yourself stuck in a loop, rehashing old decisions? Do you feel paralyzed by the fear that you might make the same mistake twice? If so, it’s time to re-frame your thinking because regret can serve a positive purpose in our lives if we let it.

Let regret keep you on your toes

INSEAD professor Manfred F. R. Kets de Vries thinks we need to make friends with regret. We can’t change the past, so the challenge, he says, is using disappointment to inform how we react and how we’ll live in the future.

As psychologist Dr. Leon F. Seltzer points out, you first need to understand the dysfunctional thinking that led to the regrettable behavior. He gives the example of a person acting rashly in the past because they had poor impulse control. If this problem continues, stop and consider the consequences before taking action in the heat of the moment. What steps could you take now so that a level head prevails over your future behavior?

Sometimes, anxieties about failure or rejection immobilize us, Seltzer notes. Then we regret letting an important opportunity or a relationship slip away due to our fears. Once you process and learn from those experiences, he says you’ll feel motivated to stay on guard against repeating that behavior in the future.

Make peace with regret

Kathryn Shulz, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist at The New Yorker, has a great Ted Talk called Don’t Regret Regret—and like Scottie P, her tattoo plays a starring role. She suggests we do three things to make our peace with regret. First, take comfort from the fact that it’s a universal human experience. We’ve all made foolish decisions at some point in our lives. How many of you can relate to a cringe-worthy accidental “reply all” email moment?

Next, we need to lighten up. Humor has a proven medicinal effect. “All of us who’ve experienced regret that contains real pain and real grief understand that humor and even black humor plays a crucial role in helping us survive. It connects the poles of our lives back together, the positive and the negative, and it sends a little current of life back into us,” Shulz says.

Her final remedy for the pain of regret is the good ol’ passage of time. “We need to learn to love the flawed, imperfect things that we create and to forgive ourselves for creating them,” she urges. “Regret doesn’t remind us that we did badly. It reminds us that we know we can do better.”

If we don’t let regret rule us, it can teach us some pretty valuable life lessons. Regret will lead to positive change and growth if you allow it. “The point isn’t to live without any regrets,” Shulz notes. “The point is to not hate ourselves for having them.”