Filled with regret? How to accept your past and move forward

Regret and poor decisions can plague our thoughts, but it is important to forgive them and pave a happy path for the future. Here’s how to do it.

It’s a very rare person (read: non-existent) who’s lived a life without regrets.

Even Frank Sinatra had a few.

But what happens if you can’t move past them, and instead find yourself stuck in a cycle of self-recrimination?

Things we commonly regret

Healthy Mind Clinic clinical psychologist Dr Adrian Allen says regrets usually fall into two categories: people either regret something they haven’t done, or regret something they have.

“It could be about relationships, it could be about career, it could be about travel, it could be about things they did or didn’t do when younger,” Dr Allen says.

Redefine Your Edge psychotherapist Martine Barclay says many of her clients regret how they have behaved.

That could be anything from making an ill-advised decision on a big night out, to decisions around work roles, or failing to stick to important goals around health.

Why we feel regret

Martine says regrets act as a protective mechanism,

“It’s a response reminding us that we don’t want it to happen again – because we move towards pleasure and away from pain,” Martine says.

However, Martine says if you can’t eventually accept major regrets, it can leave you stuck in a negative self-talk loop.

“So it’s protecting us, but in the long-term it’s harming us more than it’s doing us good if we can’t work through it,” she says.

Dr Allen says without being able to move on, a person may remain unnecessarily distressed or emotionally unwell.

Why we might struggle to let go of regret

Martine says a regret can sometimes seem so big that working through it seems insurmountable.

“Or people just don’t have the emotional resourcing for it and so it just kind of keeps them stuck,” she says.

Dr Allen says people can find it difficult to move on from a decision they regret.

For example, some people might regret investing in a business or moving before Covid-19 hit.

“I’ve seen regret coming up around some of those kinds of events, where people said ‘if only I hadn’t done that, if only I’d known … then I wouldn’t have done that’,” Dr Allen says.

How to face regrets head-on

Dr Allen encourages his clients to go back to the decision they now regret and think about it in dispassionate terms.

“Think ‘What was going on for me at that time, what was the broader context that was influencing whatever the decision was?’” he says.

“And how was that understandable, given what was happening at that time, with what was known?”

How to limit negative thoughts

He says rumination – a process of repetitive negative thinking – can be a big factor in keeping people stuck.

“People keep thinking about what’s happened and what they could or should have done differently, and it tends to be really self-critical and it drags the mood down,” Dr Allen says.

He suggests developing a mindfulness practice, where you learn to disengage from such thoughts.

Dr Allen says it can also be helpful to remember that our thinking is not necessarily a true reflection of what happened (or didn’t happen).

“We often judge ourselves quite harshly, and actually bringing a more self-compassionate approach to how we deal with ourselves and with whatever version of ourselves was present in that situation can be helpful,” he says.

How to learn from the past

Dr Allen says by acknowledging your regrets and integrating the lessons you’ve learnt you can improve your present-day and future happiness.

“So it’s really about being able to be with the fact that it’s happened, but you don’t need to keep beating yourself up,” he says.

Written by Larissa Ham.