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How to Distance Yourself From Regrets

Lisa Fields
April 23, 2018

Stop wondering about what might have been.

By Lisa Fields

Looking back on your life, do you have any regrets? If you’re like most people, a few notable moments may stand out.

Research shows that many people’s biggest regrets are over missed opportunities. We can’t go back in time to change things that have happened, so focusing on what might have been isn’t productive. Fortunately, it is possible to distance yourself from certain regretful thoughts. You can take action at the same time to address other regrets, which may help bring you peace.

“Recognizing one's impending mortality is an essential step in then deciding how to make best use of the time remaining and addressing any regrets,” said Brian Carpenter, professor of Psychological & Brain Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

Take Account of Your Life

Many people review the highs and lows of their lives at the end of life, which inevitably leads them to think about regrets and mistakes they’ve made. When taking account, it may be helpful to shift perspective so that you can identify any silver linings that may have resulted from situations you regret. For example, if you’ve always regretted turning down a promotion that would have put your family on stronger financial footing, realize that having fewer responsibilities at the office allowed you to spend more quality time at home with your children.

Research has shown that older adults may be better equipped to deal with regret than younger people, partly because of the wisdom and perspective they’ve gained from life experience. If a person is able to recall their successes and failures with some emotional distance, it may help them to become kinder to -- and more understanding of -- themselves and others.

“When seeking to cope with the past, I often encourage people to reminisce on the journey as a whole,” said Veronica Shead, a clinical psychologist in palliative care with the VA St. Louis Health Care System. “Many people must start with self-forgiveness and then forgiveness of others. It is just as important to acknowledge what they have overcome, their accomplishments and impact.”

Reflect on Your Values

Values may change near the end of life. The regrets that followed you around for decades -- like not going to college or not achieving a high-earning career -- may no longer disturb you if you begin placing more value on relationships, giving money less of an appeal. Coming to these realizations may make it easier for you to let go of certain long-standing regrets.

“One may realize that things they were very concerned about, in the larger scheme of things, are no longer as important as they once thought,” Shead said. “The focus may change to those things that are most important and how one would like to spend their time.”

Seize the Moment

If you’ve identified regrets that you would like to address, sharing your feelings with others may provide you with a sense of release.

“Each time one faces the sadness of loss related to regret, an opportunity is opened up to connect with others from a new emotional depth,” said Susan Kavaler-Adler, a clinical psychologist in New York City and author of “The Anatomy of Regret.” “At the end of life, one's internal life becomes more important than ever, and through mourning the losses of past regrets, the capacity for in-depth relating emerges.”

You may find it meaningful to reach out to loved ones to discuss ways that your actions or inactions may have affected their lives. Sharing your thoughts may help to relieve some of the regretful feelings.

“People may want to have an actual conversation with those important people, or they may want to write or dictate a letter or email,” Carpenter said. “And they might want someone else to help them prepare, for instance by reading something they’ve written and offering some input, and setting in motion the logistics that might be needed to make the conversation happen -- setting up a time for a phone call or a visit.”

Don’t Expect Anything in Return

Expressing regrets may lead to emotional growth or closure. If you feel the need to explain yourself, apologize, or share your feelings, however, do it simply because you feel strongly about doing it, not because you’re expecting someone to respond to you in a specific way.

“People should be prepared for the possibility that even when they have said their piece, they may not necessarily get the exact response they wanted,” Carpenter said. “For example, unconditional acceptance or forgiveness, an expression of emotion in return, a sympathetic ear, or any response at all. Making an effort to address a regret is something the person is doing for themselves, and they have only so much control over how it will be received. But taking action itself may bring some psychological relief.”

Talk With a Therapist

If you would like to address some of your regrets but need help getting started, take time to meet with a psychologist or counselor. This can be particularly helpful if you’re planning to address regrets of inaction and you aren’t sure where to begin to how to motivate yourself.

“Taking risks in life is very important and may become acutely important for someone aging who has failed to take risks in the past, resulting in regrets due to missed opportunities,” Kavaler-Adler said. “However, to allow for such risk-taking, the person needs to work with a psychotherapist to understand what has inhibited them in the past. Otherwise, their new attempt to take risks may backfire and not be supported by their full emotional and interactive self.”

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