No Regrets: How to Turn This Unappealing Feeling Into a Powerful Tool for Change

“Live life with no regrets.” That’s a nice little saying to plaster on Instagram photos and bedroom walls. But what about for the rest of us?

I’ve always viewed regret as a natural and common human experience, but I’ve noticed something when conversing with my peers: They’ll often reveal they feel bad about some way they’ve failed in the past, and then rush to add, “Not that I regret it!” What perplexes me each time someone asserts (without my prompting) that they don’t regret something is that, it seems to me, they do.

To get a better feel for how fellow millennials approach regret, I took to Instagram. If you type in #noregrets, you’ll find 2.7 million photos with that hashtag, many of them portraying tanned individuals having the time of their lives at the beach. Related hashtags that pop up above it are #staypositive, #nonegativity, and #dontlookback.

It almost seems like regret is, at worst, a useless emotion or, at best, an emotion my peers have never experienced.

What Is Regret?

Maybe the problem is merely a matter of semantics. If so, let’s clarify with an operating definition. The Oxford Dictionary defines regret as

“A feeling of sadness, repentance, or disappointment over an occurrence or something that one has done or failed to do.”

We experience regret when we wish we had done things differently. I’ll voucher each and every one of us knows this feeling. It’s there for minor things, like when we don’t like the food we ordered and wish we had gotten the other dish, or when it rains on our way to work and we wish we’d grabbed the umbrella on the way out. But it’s also there for weightier matters, like when we spew hurtful words in the heat of an argument or fail to be there for a friend in need.

I think it’s often easier for us to claim we have no regrets than it is to acknowledge we wish we’d done things differently. It’s unnecessary to regret something we had no control over, but for other regrets caused by our informed actions or inactions, there’s good news: We can transform them into powerful tools for change.

Transform Regret From Tormentor to Teacher

Professor Neal Roese, a leading expert in the research of regret, asserts we can use regret to inform our decisions and make changes that improve our future. For example, I recently traveled abroad with a friend and was constantly snapping at her, despite her unwavering kindness towards me. I felt so bad about it that I avoided her for weeks after the trip ended. Finally, thanks to my feelings of regret, I reached out to her and apologized. She assured me there were no hard feelings, and we were able to move on from it and resume talking; she even invited me to travel with her again. Had I never acknowledged that I had done something wrong, the growth of our friendship would have been stunted.

One of my favorite TED Talks frames this beautifully. Kathryn Schultz, in her talk entitled “Don’t regret regret,” says this:

“Here's the thing: If we have goals and dreams, and we want to do our best, and if we love people and we don't want to hurt them or lose them, we should feel pain when things go wrong.” She goes on to say, “Regret doesn't remind us that we did badly. It reminds us that we know we can do better.”

It’s definitely worth a watch:

The Future Is Bright: Learn From Regret and Do Better Next Time

Learning to process our emotions in a healthy way is an important aspect of our well-being. Instead of endlessly ruminating over our failures, let’s reflect upon the lessons they teach us, and move on to become the best version of ourselves.

Acknowledge the regret, learn from it, and practice forgiveness. Even if we haven’t lived a life of no regrets, we can start to live one that learns from them.