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Of all the thoughts that haunt us, the biggest tormentors are often about what could have been.
Regret can strike anyone, regardless of how much money or fame they possess. A recently published biography of Joan Rivers reveals her biggest regret was not being taken seriously as a stage actress.
Fixating on the emotion can be a huge source of stress, said Elizabeth Lombardo, a psychologist and author of “Better Than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love.”
“I think of regret like pressing on a bruise,” Lombardo told TODAY. “It hurts and it doesn't help the healing. If you stay in this place of regret, beating yourself up, it simply hurts.”
One study found romance, family and career were the biggest sources of regrets for Americans. Not standing up for yourself, not forgiving someone and not going for something you really want are also common disappointments, Lombardo noted.
But regret can have some benefits, said Amy Summerville, associate professor of social psychology at Miami University in Ohio and director of the school’s Regret Lab.
“Regret can really be a great teacher to us if we listen to it,” she noted.
Here are four ways to cope:
1. Realize you did the best you could
When people look back at past situations, they tend to overestimate how much choice they actually had at the time, research has found.
“We feel regret about the stuff where we feel we could have done something differently. It’s important to remind yourself that sometimes you’re feeling regret about something that you really couldn’t have controlled,” Summerville said.
“Most of the time, we’re doing the best that we can.”
When people get to retirement age, for example, they often regret spending so much time at the office rather than with their family.
But they may forget that when they were parents of young kids, they were just starting their careers, Summerville pointed out. So to provide for their family, they had to focus on work to keep their job.
2. Consider it a teaching moment
If you regret situations where you did have some control, ask yourself: “What’s the lesson that I’ve learned here?” Summerville advised.
Regret tends to stick around when it’s about an area of your life that’s really important to you. Look at it as a way to help you learn from your mistakes and plan for your future.
A typical regret might involve not telling people you loved them before they passed away. What does that say about how you want to approach your relationships now?
“Maybe you want to take more time to tell the people in your life that they matter,” Summerville noted. Then, try to move on and accept the regret: “This is done, but I can move forward.”
Use regret to identify what you truly want so that you can make positive changes right now, Lombardo added.
3. Don’t fixate on ‘what could have been’
Regret is the most frequent negative emotion people feel in their daily lives, Summerville noted.
It’s not so bad on its own, but what makes it unhealthy is rumination, a term that derives from the way cows digest food — they chew it, swallow it, then regurgitate it and chew it again, Summerville said.
Likewise, you may find yourself on a loop — returning to the same negative feelings over and over again.
“You have these unwanted, uncontrollable intrusive thoughts that just keep coming up for you. Regret is happening in a way that feels intrusive, unwanted and uncontrollable,” she explained.
The resulting stress can have an impact on your mind and body, Lombardo warned. Chronic stress can lead to depressed mood, anxiety, difficulty concentrating, illness, difficulty sleeping and over-eating, she noted.
Let go of what might have been and stop beating yourself up.
4. Think of regret as a signal to change
That doesn’t mean you need to ditch your entire career and run off to do yoga in Bali, but regret could be a way to let you know a change would be beneficial.
“Often, we go through life on automatic pilot. When we feel regret, it is a reminder of what is truly important to us,” Lombardo advised.
“Use that regret to help you incorporate what is truly important to you and forgive yourself for not already having done it.”