People always say you should avoid regret.
"Life is too short!" Maybe yes, maybe no.
We learn an awful lot from our regrets.
Could having regrets point the way to a better life?
You're stuck in traffic and running late. Why did I go this way?!? You say something dumb or insensitive. I can't believe I just said that. You make a mistake. Why did I do that? You look at the clock and realize you wasted two hours you couldn't afford to waste. Grrrrrowl. Something bad happens. If only I had...
We all feel regret to some degree almost every day, from small disappointments to big, life-changing events. Missed opportunities. Failures in judgment. Poor choices. Regret rears its ugly head when we believe things might have gone better had we just said or done something differently.
Regret causes distress, for us and others. When we express regret, our friends, family, and co-workers usually tell us to let it go. It makes them uncomfortable, and besides - life's too short! In response, we often hold regret inside. We chew on it quietly. We struggle letting go of regret, even when it isn't serving us well.
If we're going to feel it - and we're going to struggle to let it go - why not put it to work for us instead? Why not let regret point the way to a better life? It sounds a little too good to be true, but read on for some quick and easy ideas on how to embrace regret in your life. Regret has a bad rap. It's not my favorite emotion, but it does serve a purpose.
How can regret point the way to a better life for you?
Regret only comes about when we feel we could've done better. The desire for better is a great teacher. We want one thing and we get another. We feel regret. I read an article recently by Michael Craig Miller, Editor in Chief of Harvard Mental Health Letter, and a professor at Harvard Medical School. (Hello, credentials.) He talked about how regret is hard-wired into our biology.
Neuroscience tells us that we learn better when there's an "intense emotional component" tied to it. Sometimes the emotional intensity of regret is surprising, even when it comes to very small disappointments. Ever had a mini-tantrum just from spilling coffee on your desk and having a few messy papers as a result? The emotional stakes can be high when it comes to life's bigger regrets.
The "misses" we experience in life give us an opportunity to consider why we didn't get what we wanted. Considering why things went wrong almost always gives us new insight.
Here are a few ways to put regret to work for you, and increase the odds that you'll get what you want next time.
1. Ask "Why?"
This probably feels a little obvious, but consider this. Most of us spend more time thinking about the "what" when things go wrong than the "why." When something happens that doesn't match up to our expectation or desire, we can think about what we didn't get until the cows come home. It doesn't help at all. By asking why, and a few related questions, we can learn from regret instead. A lot. So splash around in your disappointment for a bit, and then be productive.
- Why didn't things go your way? Is that true? (Your 2nd answer is usually more true.)
- Could you have done something differently?
- If you were doing it again, what would you change?
- Did you do all you could - your best - to earn a different outcome?
2. Own it.
Sometimes taking responsibility stinks. It's still almost always the right thing to do. When you experience regret, the only way to grow from it is to own the role you play. There will be times in your life when you're a victim of circumstance. Even then, you may be able to see choices you could've made differently (even if one of those choices is to be less trusting or naive). Here's what it means to own regret and grow from it.
3. Manage risk to get reward.
- Apologize if you feel it's warranted. Be a grown up when you mess up.
- If you find that you could've made better choices, share that with others involved.
- Try not to gripe and moan for too long. Get it out, then shut it down.
- Be thoughtful about what path makes sense now. Turn your focus forward.
3. Manage risk to get reward.
One of the things Miller talks about in his article is the importance of balancing risk and reward. Our tendency with regret is to pull back into our shell and retreat from all forms of risk. We've been burned and we don't want to be burned again. Here's another way to respond: lean in to risk. Past experiences of regret give you a better appreciation of risk - specifically what's worth risking. Put regret to work for you by learning from it and making better decisions the next time. You have to manage risk to get rewards in life. This is one of the best lessons from regret.
- Learn from regret and trust that you'll do better next time.
- Identify risks associated with what you want. Pay attention.
- Don't trust blindly that things will go your way. Make and follow a plan.
- Be intentional in your thoughts, words, and actions. (You're more likely to get what you want.)
Regret is unavoidable if you take any chances worth taking, in life and at work. Regret feels like a waste of time, but it isn't. It's an emotion that tells you something didn't live up to your expectations and you don't like it. The question becomes what will you do about it?
You can revel in it. You can beat yourself up. You can even be angry at other people for their choices. Or you understand regret, learn from it, and increase the odds you'll get what you want next time. This is true for small regrets, as well as big and overwhelming ones.
The best way to put regret to work for you is to understand what happened and why. Tell whatever stories you want to other people, but keep your answers real for yourself. Identify the role you may have played in not getting the outcome you wanted.
If you understand why you didn't get what you wanted, and you know what you could've done differently, you can take responsibility for your situation. Without a doubt, you'll do better the next time. You'll learn to manage risk. You'll remember to dig in and do your best to pursue what you want when it really matters to you.
Running from regret is a missed opportunity. So is splashing around in regret, or creating drama around it to make yourself feel better. Feel it. Understand it. Learn from it. Do better next time.
And please, remember this. You're not alone. Anyone who's ever done anything of meaning in their life has messed up. We all feel regret. We all learn tough lessons. Successful people take it as a challenge to do better the next time opportunity comes knocking.
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Thanks for taking the time to check in today. I hope you don't regret it. :)