Need to stop beating yourself up over your past? Here, top psychologists Ellen Hendriksen, Ph.D., and author of How to Be
Yourself ($10.99, Amazon), Neal Roese, Ph.D., and author of If Only: How to Turn Regret Into Opportunity ($5.19, Amazon), and Linda Hoopes, Ph.D., and author of Prosilience: Building Your Resilience for a Turbulent World, ($16.95, Amazon), reveal how to let go of regret and embrace a more joyful, resilient future on your terms.
“What if?” Once those two little words get stuck in our head, it’s hard to get them out, says Hendriksen, a psychologist at Boston University’s
Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders. But widening our perspective about what happened lets us process regret without self-recrimination.
Hendriksen suggests visualizing the memories and emotions of your regret as a gushing waterfall. “Now imagine standing behind it,” she says. “You can observe it, but you’re not under the water yourself.”
As space develops between you and your memories, you’ll realize there were circumstances that led to what happened and that you did the best you could at the time.
Instead of focusing on how things could have gone better in a thought process known as “upward thinking,” consider how things could’ve gone worse (“downward thinking”). “It sounds counterintuitive but downward thinking frees us from negative thoughts,” reveals Roese, a professor at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
If, for example, you can’t shake the guilt of feeling like you weren’t supportive enough of a friend going through a divorce, try to imagine that you had never been there for her at all and how much more profound that regret would have been. Says Roese: “This helps you let go of unfair self-blame.”
Allow ‘Cringe Attacks’
“Sometimes the mind plays a trick on us, and a regret from long ago pops into our head out of nowhere,” notes Hendriksen. “Psychologists don’t fully understand these ‘cringe attacks,’ but we do know that they’re harmless and fleeting — if we don’t dwell on them.”
Just allow yourself to briefly re-experience the embarrassment, and then let it pass. “Remind yourself that there’s no deeper meaning to it, and it shouldn’t affect your self-image.”
Listen to These Signals
“Regret never feels good, but it often ends up helping us make better choices,” says Roese. The key is to listen to the signals our regrets are sending.
Lamenting not traveling in your 20s? Take it as a sign to be adventurous in your 50s. Mourning a friendship that drifted away? Let the sorrow inspire you to cherish the friends you have now.
Adopt a Growth Mind-Set
Regret can make us better able to handle life’s curveballs — if we approach them with a growth mind-set. Tell yourself, “I haven’t achieved this thing yet,” rather than “I’ll never accomplish that.”
If you have trouble showing yourself this compassion, write a letter to yourself from your “inner wise woman,” advises Resilience Alliance founder Hoopes. “Imagine what a friend would tell you, then write down those words.” Take them to heart, knowing we’re all works in progress heading in the right direction.
Regret-Proof the Future
The more we say “yes” in life, the fewer regrets we’ll have moving forward. “Research shows we don’t regret the road we took; rather, the risks we avoided,” says Hendriksen.
Hoopes sees the happy upside: “I advise clients to be choiceful. Go on the offensive in shaping the life you want and you’ll reap surprising rewards.”
This story originally appeared in our print magazine.
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