You’ve probably experienced at least one of these situations: a loss, a broken relationship, a regrettable decision, words that were better left unsaid … or words that were never said. All are examples of a common thread that weaves together as part of the human experience. How did you handle them? Or perhaps more accurately, are you still handling them?
Many people’s truthful answer would be yes. We all tend to carry around the heavy burden of regrets, sometimes for all the world to see.
That said, a new year always brings new beginnings. People are eager to shed the previous calendar and embrace the promise of the coming year. Yet we don’t always readily do the same with our past regrets.
Now’s a great time to let them go. To do so, though, you must first understand why you have a hard time letting go in the first place.
Why we cling to regret
Somebody else may have caused this pain or perhaps you are causing it, which makes you the victim or the perpetrator—or perhaps both. However, the common denominator is that there’s someone or something to blame. As our defense mechanisms kick in and we focus on that person or situation, our emotions can take over because we’re in pain. Think about the common sayings associated with pain: Love hurts. Feelings get hurt. The truth hurts.
There’s a science-based reason for this emotional response. According to Psychology Today, studies show that regret dampens the reward-processing part of the brain while increasing the neurons in its emotional center. So when our emotional side overtakes our rational side, we start asking, “Why?” Sometimes repeatedly. And it’s made worse if there’s no answer. For many, no answer means no closure, and that leads to the question perpetually rattling around their brains.
Tips for turning the page
So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains/And we never even know we have the key. —Eagles, “Already Gone”
When it comes to letting go, the key may be knowing there are many ways to help change your perspective and start turning things around for the better. Seeing a therapist is always an option, of course, especially if your regret seeps into other parts of your life. When processing through it yourself, though, try these approaches.
Being real about the situation is often the most difficult part of the letting-go process because you open yourself up and your emotions are completely raw. For example, if you are trying to get over a breakup, are you actually mad at the other person or at yourself for clinging to hope or regret—perhaps even long after they’re out of your life? Once you can be truthful with yourself and face difficult realities head-on, you can begin to address your situation.
Acknowledge and express your feelings.
It’s OK to not be OK. Admit that you are experiencing painful emotions by naming what they are, and then try to expel them. Write your feelings in a journal, set it aside for a while, and then go back and look at what you wrote. It will be like you’re having an honest conversation with yourself. Let the emotions flow with a powerful cry or scream, or vent to a close friend, who can validate your feelings.
There’s a reason “forgive and forget” is a common mantra: the two are often interdependent. Ultimately, you’re responsible for your own happiness, and achieving it often begins by choosing to absolve someone. Forgive the person who hurt you, even if they have taken no responsibility. Perhaps even more importantly, forgive yourself, even if you believe you may make the same mistake again.
Accept the past, and learn from it.
Living in the past is like driving down a road while constantly looking at the rearview mirror—you will crash. For that reason, avoid words like “would’ve,” “should’ve,” or “could’ve.” Instead, flip it forward: anticipate how you’d handle the same situation more productively if it happens again.
Embrace the present.
As the old saying roughly goes, “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. But today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present.” Try some techniques that can help force you to focus on the here and now, such as breathing exercises and meditation. Doing so can help you incrementally get back to living in the moment.
At times, things may not be as bad as your brain is telling you they are; you just need something or someone to adjust your thinking. For example, I’m an editor. If I miss a typo, I will tend to kick myself and create my own mental jail cell that I can’t leave. However, to do my job, I need to bail myself out and move on. I must remind myself that it’s just a typo and the quest for perfection is usually a lost cause. (More on that next.) Applying perspective to other issues isn’t always easy, but it can be an effective tool to help lift you out of your funk.
Very often, regret is simply a mental and emotional battle for perfection that you cannot win. Instead of consciously or subconsciously punishing yourself, accept yourself and your life—including the imperfect parts. See it as an opportunity to learn about yourself and grow. You’ll likely find it empowering.
Letting go of a painful experience isn’t always easy and, in fact, can be one of the more difficult challenges you’ll face. But when you manage to find that “aha” moment, the one that jump-starts your brain and moves toward a more positive, forward-thinking, hopeful direction, you’ll be on the path to liberating yourself from your past and returning to the enjoyment of daily living.