In the early years of my career as a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist I was often in the uncomfortable position of struggling to find a way to help some of my clients cope with their thoughts and feelings of regret: "If only I had recognized my cheating boyfriend for what he really is," "I wish I had been a better and more patient mother to my son," "If only I had studied harder I would have done better in life." Regret is something all of us experience now and again, but in some people it tends to be a recurring theme bringing with it a dark cloud of sadness and angst. It occurs often in people with depression, but it can also trouble people who do not have clinical depression, although less frequently.
What can I say to people who are repeatedly pulled down into this morass of self-blame and regret? What can I do to help them? These were questions I struggled with even as I struggled to grow as a person and deal with similar issues cropping up in my own life.
Over time, with learning, experience, and exposure to some of the wonderful evidence-based psychotherapies like cognitive-behavior therapy, I have found that some strategies in particular make an impact on my clients who struggle with this terrible affliction called regret. The strategies have typically been directed at moving the client toward thinking and behaving differently with regard to their regret. A good way to do this involves asking questions that stimulate and guide that movement.
"Is thinking this way helping you?"
The answer to this question is always a resounding "NO." However, some clients have come back with angry responses saying that they have no choice since these thoughts hound them or that these thoughts are the truth at the end of the day. Some have even gone a step ahead and said that they feel they deserve to feel bad since they are at fault. And others have sounded defeated as they talked about not being able to free themselves of these thoughts once they are in their grip.
However for many clients the idea of not giving free reign to their thoughts of regret and finding a way to diminish the stranglehold these thoughts have on their emotions begins to take seed with this question. Many say that they have never thought of their thoughts as being helpful or not.
"Have you noticed how the excessive regret impacts what you do and say?"
Responses typically indicate the negative influence regret has on behaviors ranging from losing confidence, to wanting not to be around people, especially the persons linked to their thoughts of regret, and being more self-depreciating than they need to be. I had a beautiful young girl who avoided dating and became very anxious when any male showed her attention because she had been mistaken in her judgment about the last person she had dated.
Explore the situation causing the feelings of regret but do it differently by challenging the self-blame linked to the regret with some questions.
• "Could I have acted any differently considering the particular stage in my life and the information or experiences I had until that point in my life?" It is likely that you will realize that you did what any person in your shoes would have done, given your background, the circumstance and the information you had. The young girl who misjudged her cheating boyfriend was naïve, so she had trusted her boyfriend till she found out what he was all about.
• "Was it only me or was there anything or anyone else who contributed to my mistake or error?" I have invariably found that people who are drowning in regret take all the responsibility for their errors or mistakes. They do not take into consideration any of the other factors that contributed to the problem. For example a mother in her sixties blamed herself completely for her son's misbehavior in his adolescence. However, exploring all aspects of what her son was going through at that time brought to light a number of factors that were linked to her son's behavior that had nothing to do with her. Like his being bullied in school and his having a delayed growth spurt.
• "What would I tell my good friend or a loved one who is experiencing a lot of regret and blaming herself or himself for a similar situation?" Asking this question invariably helps people to see things in a more objective manner since they are not as embroiled in it.
• "Was there anything I did right in the situation I regret so much?" This may not always be easy and I have often had to explore the situation more closely with my clients to help them recognize what they had done right. For example, the mother with regrets had done many things right with her son, such as tutoring and helping him with his studies, driving him to various extracurricular activities, encouraging and supporting him the best she could.
• "As a result of this regretful experience, have I changed the way I behave and respond to similar situations?" It is highly likely that you will find that you have learned some important lessons in life, and you are better off as a result of the very experience you regret.
• "Look around you. Do you see anyone who has not made any mistakes in life at all? The answer is obvious.
Is there anything you can do about it now?
I have found that this question can bring up varying responses and outcomes. In some instances it can lead people to open up and talk to someone they feel they may have hurt or caused harm to. This may help them realize sometimes that they did not cause as much harm or hurt as they thought. It can make them reevaluate their current choices and take actions to help them move toward goals they regret not having moved towards.
Accepting that it is okay to be an imperfect person.
Excessive regret is often linked to not being okay with making errors or mistakes. In other words, the solution to not experiencing regret is not to be perfect but to be okay with making mistakes simply because it is impossible for humans not to make mistakes and experience some regret. Let the regret fuel learning and self-forgiveness, not self-flagellation and anger towards oneself. Accepting the likelihood of mistakes and errors is scary, but it is a kinder and less distressing option in the long run. It makes you more resilient and courageous to move forward into unchartered waters, that can bring with it mistakes and regrets. It can also bring success and joy that may have never come your way if it had not been for the path strewn with mistakes and feelings of regret.
To learn more about depression, its effects and related disorders, visit the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Suma Chand, PhD, is an Associate Professor and Director of the Cognitive Behavior Therapy Program in the Department of Psychiatry, Saint Louis University School of Medicine. She is a Fellow of the Academy of Cognitive Therapy and a member of the Public Education Committee of the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA).