The Psychology of Regret and How to Overcome It

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psychology of regret

Someone asked me the other day if there’s anything I wish I would have known before starting the Meaning Movement.

That’s a tough question to answer. If she’d asked if there are things I would have done differently, I would have had quite a list:

  • I would invest in a good plugin to run opt-ins sooner.
  • I would have started asking people who are making it work online for help sooner.
  • I would have gotten some coaching sooner.
  • I would have honed my title writing skills sooner.
  • Etc.

But I didn’t know that I needed any of those things. How could I? I was doing the best that I could with what I had to work with.

Which is exactly what we always have to do.


Choosing Kindness

It is easy to look back with frustration and judgment. There are many things that I could regret if I wanted to. It would be easy to add my voice to the many internal voices who cast judgment about what I should have known and how I should have done and been doing things different or better.

But instead, I want to choose a more kind response.

Kindness for where I was and the little I knew. Kindness for the courage to start without knowing everything there was (and is) to know.

Kindness for the desire to create something that helps people, no matter the cost (oh the cost!).

Kindness for the many moments along the way when I’ve been disappointed.
Kindness for each time I sit down to write in spite of the fact that I feel empty and without words to say.
Kindness for the naïve parts of myself that got excited to jump right in, and kindness for my fool-hearted self that agreed to do so.

Kindness for my misspelled titles. Kindness for my typos. Kindness to the subscriber emails I sent on accident and kindness to the emails I forget to send.

Kindness for the moments when I hate not knowing what to do next. Kindness for the moments when I choose to do something and then regretted it.

Kindness for when I’ve poured my heart out into something with the hope that it will change people. And kindness for when I don’t get to hear if it does or does not.

Kindness for slow growth.

Kindness for how unglamorous all of this is.

Kindness for how much I want this to work, and kindness for how long I have to stay in the tension between wanting it to work and feeling like it’s not working.

Kindness for finding courage when I feel tired.
Kindness for finding courage when I feel worn.
Kindness for finding courage when no one understands that it takes courage.

Kindness for being afraid.

Kindness for the random things I’ve had to do to make ends meet.
Kindness for when they don’t.

Though there are many ways that I could say I wish this had gone differently up until this point, I’d rather honor the hope and desire that has brought me (and us) this far.

The Psychology of Regret and How to Overcome It

Psychologically the way you consider your past is the way you imagine your future. If you allow yourself to live in a paradigm of regret— where harsh voices condemn you for your mistakes and curse your attempts to step into the unknown — you will lack the ability to imagine an open and hopeful future. This is why the psychology of regret can be so harmful— the regrets of your past instill fear of the unknown in your future.

Instead of the enormous possibility of what you could do or create, you are walking into a future full of land mines and booby traps. The only way to clear space for possibility is to first find freedom for yourself in your stories.

Before you can dream of a bigger and brighter future, you must begin with a more gentle and loving past.

This doesn’t mean ignoring feelings of regret when you experience them— that will only cause those emotions to come out in other ways. Instead, you must answer those memories with a gracious and sympathetic response.

What I Wish I’d Known

When asked what I wish I knew before starting, regrets speak loudly. But it’s more important for me to say this:

There’s nothing that I wish I’d known, or that I needed to know.

I’m so glad I started.

If you have something in you waiting to be birthed into the world, try kindness. It changes things.

Dan Cumberland is on a mission to push you into the places meaning, life, & work intersect. He is the author of The Meaning Manifesto. Read more about him here, and connect with him on facebook and twitter.

There Are 4 Comments On This Post.

  1. Tassos

    You said “the way you consider your past is the way you imagine your future” and it ringed some bells. If that’s true it says a lot about my own path in life. For me it wasn’t regret but rather anger about what I was considering to be unfair.

    It is true for me too I guess, because this is my main subconscious drive. It even got me into trouble sometimes too. It is kinda limiting I guess but it is also an integral part of who I am.
    What can one do when they don’t want to change that? How do I make it stop being a limiting factor while still being there?

    • Hi Tassos! Interesting question. I think awareness is key. Knowing that you feel it and why you feel it gives you the opportunity to choose how you engage with it. At least, that’s a great place to start.

  2. Aman

    I am really very grateful for this post Dan. I feel as light as a cloud after reading this. I used to regret everything, complain for the same unchangeable facts every single day. I was cruel on myself, and on others too. I feel that if I treat the past with kindness and compassion, I will also receive the same emotions from others.
    Thanks again.

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