Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 12/31/2022
When was the last time you thought, “I wish I had…” or “If only I had…”? One “fun” part of being human that we all get to deal with is regret. If you’ve been on this planet for any number of years, there’s a very good chance you have regrets.
Feeling guilt is a normal human response and we may hold on to our regrets, even if they’re from years ago. Sometimes regret can help us. But holding on to guilt and regret isn’t always a good thing for our mental health.
This guide can help you learn how to deal with regret and guilt so you can move forward and lead a happier and healthier life.
To learn how to deal with regret, a good first step is understanding what regret is.
Regret is a negative emotion focused on blaming ourselves for a particular outcome, feeling sadness or loss over what might or could have been or wanting to undo a past choice.
Regret is considered a type of counterfactual thinking, or the kind of thinking that results in you imagining how your life could have turned out differently. Counterfactual thinking can be positive and felt as relief (feeling thankful you avoided disaster) but often involves feelings of regret or disappointment.
Or we might feel negative emotions when thinking about poor decisions made in the past or how we were treated or how treated others.
For instance, studies have found that women are more likely to have regret over past romantic relationships than men.
We’re also more likely to regret actions we didn’t take further back in the past (over long periods), like missing out on a relationship or making a wrong choice for our career path.
Painful experiences can often lead to painful emotions. We might feel negative emotions if we’re focused on the belief that a past event could have been changed for a different outcome.
One of the reasons regret feels as bad as it does and causes guilt is that part of regret involves self-blame or blaming ourselves for the choices we made. Maybe if you had made a different choice or taken a different action, you could have avoided a painful result (or created a more favorable one).
Regret and guilt can have negative effects on mental and physical health if you continuously ruminate on what could have been. Repetitive, negative thinking is often a symptom of depression — whether regret or this mental health disorder causes it.
Holding on to regrets can also negatively affect your physical health, resulting in chronic stress and impacting your hormones and immune system.
When we keep replaying past events in our head or are constantly thinking “could have, should have, would have,” we keep ourselves from properly recovering and moving on with life.
But there can be a positive aspect to regret in that people see regret as a more favorable negative emotion. Research has found that regret was useful in helping people:
Make sense of the world
Avoid future negative behaviors or future regrets
Improve ability to approach or achieve what we want
When used well or when we learn from our past choices and regrets, we can better understand how to achieve what we want or avoid future regrets.
Knowing how to deal with regret and guilt can allow us to move past any lingering negative feelings, as well as avoid future regrets.
Keep reading to learn how to deal with guilt and regret.
While regret may be a universal feeling, learning how to deal with guilt and regret can help you move forward with your life.
As we mentioned above, regret can be used as a functional tool to learn from your past and avoid future regrets.
Research has even found that both a regretful experience and anticipated future regrets can influence you to make better decisions in the present.
Acknowledging what you’re feeling and embracing your emotions can help you accept what’s going on with you. Certain types of therapy — like acceptance and commitment therapy — work to help you deal with what’s causing you distress by learning to accept inner emotions.
If we’re constantly thinking about the past, we may be struggling to let go. But letting go can help us move forward, especially if there’s nothing you can do to change regretful actions that may have caused harm.
Regret is a normal human emotion that we all experience. Whether looking back at past bad choices and wishing we’d done something differently or having career regret about our path (or regret about everything in between), regret and the guilt that might come with it are powerful emotions.
But learning how to deal with regret and guilt can be beneficial for us in many ways. By embracing our emotions as they are, learning from our past and forgiving ourselves, we can make healthier choices and avoid future regrets.
If regret or guilt is causing you severe emotional distress or constantly ruminating on the past interferes with your daily life, talking to a mental health professional could also help.