Is Regret a Bad Thing?

Live with no regrets! is a commonly-repeated adage we have all heard. The gusto and simplicity of such an idea is alluring. It inspires a sense that to feel the pain of regret is a waste of valuable energy better spent on positive thoughts and getting on with life. As someone who has carried regret as a near-constant companion for much of my life, I once felt quite tempted by the prod to just let it go. Then I discovered the vein of gold hidden beneath the truth of the pain for my mistakes.

Regret is partly a feeling of sadness or distress associated with something we have done or not done. In addition to the emotional response, regret also has a thinking (cognitive) component. Not only do we feel bad, but we also blame ourselves for any injury caused. The injury can be real or imagined; it can be harm caused to ourselves or others.   

Imagine you make an offhanded comment you wish you had thought through more fully to a friend. You can see the hurt in your friend’s eyes. The funny feeling in your stomach clues you into the feeling of regret. You reflect, apologize or clarify, and decide to handle things differently next time. In this example, the feeling leads to understanding (and repair, which we will get to).

Regret could also occur as a realization that we did something out of character or immoral. In this case, we comprehend the error first, leading to feelings of remorse. The feeling reminds us that knowing and living by our values is important.

The sensory/emotional and mental experiences are both fundamental aspects of regret. If we feel adverse but don’t understand why, we will not know how to take corrective action. We may assign blame to others or distract ourselves to avoid the discomfort. Alternatively, we are unlikely to learn if we understand we have caused harm but don’t feel bad. Regret is a natural human experience, not good or bad. Like all emotions, it teaches. By learning the lessons regret can teach us, we get better at life. And we get better at making sense of it.

(Note: There are helpful albeit inconsistent academic distinctions to be made between the various words we use to describe regret—namely, guilt and remorse—but these distinctions are not necessary for our purposes here. If one word resonates with you more, use it.)

What Might Have Been

Some years ago, I suffered an almost fatal addiction. I was also a single mom. When I think about the impact of my actions and failures during that time on my son, how he struggles to trust others, I feel sadness for that loss. I can see that, had I protected him, he would be more joyful. He would find it easier to trust and have warm, intimate relationships. He would be relaxed and comfortable in his body.

But, if I keep inquiring, I find that loss of trust is only an idea. Yes, I perceive he trusts less than the little boy I knew, but whether or not that is objectively true isn’t knowable. We cannot know what would have been.

But let’s say it is true; we know with certainty that he trusts less than the imaginary, perfectly trusting person I am comparing him to today. Does he trust less because of my betrayal and only that? I also cannot know conclusively whether or not my actions are what led him to his current propensity to trust.

I want to pause here and say, lest you see this activity as an attempt to avoid accountability, that we started from a place of accepting blame. These inquiries are tools we can use to counteract our natural yet flawed tendency to accept what we cannot know as true. If used wisely, these inquiry techniques can help us and those around us grow and heal. (In other words, they are tools to loosen the death grip hold on the club we are bludgeoning ourselves with.)

Psychologists (and philosophers before them) call the stories we tell about imaginary outcomes and impacts (what might have beens) counterfactuals.[i] Counterfactuals are details or narratives we use to make sense of the past, but they are counter to the facts—meaning not what happened, not necessarily that they are wrong. (It also can’t be determined as wrong if it isn’t knowable.)

It may be that we create details to soothe the pain we feel, or we may create them to prove to ourselves that we are to blame (that’s my go-to). The following sentences shown above are examples of counterfactuals: I can see that had I protected him, he would be more joyful. He would find it easier to trust and have warm, intimate relationships. He would be relaxed and comfortable in his body.

In fact, the “live without regrets” mantra is a counterfactual mental shortcut designed to reframe regret as a waste of time. Boom! You’re off the hook—no wonder it’s so popular. The problem is, until we make an honest attempt to make better what we have broken, even if we don’t feel the pain, others do. And our bodies also know. We cannot trick our bodies or the energetic fields in which we all reside. If we fail to realign what we have misaligned, there is an impact, no matter how positively we pretend to think.

What We Do and What We Don’t Do

My regrets as a mother were about what I wish I did not do (lying about the scars on my body, having a loaded gun in the car, bringing people into our lives I did not know, and so on). They are also about what I failed to do (tucking him in every night or being there when he was afraid). According to research[ii], regrets of inaction are harder to move on from than regret for the things we did. When we think about the role of what might have been in regret, it’s easy to see why this is. What could have happened is immeasurable when we think about what did not occur because actual events do not constrain the possibilities. These regrets also tend to be felt more deeply. While I may not empirically know that lying to my son caused him to trust less, assuming that is the case is pretty rational. Lying is a cause, and trusting less is the perceived consequence. It sucks, but the feeling associated with it isn’t a shock to my system. On the other hand, when I imagine the impact of not being there when he was afraid and needed me, that’s a gut punch. And the possibilities are dark and endless. The absence of constraints makes inaction regrets harder to handle.

The good news is that once we truly understand that we cannot know what might have been, whether for what happened or what did not happen, we can be freed from the cognitive loop of regret. The pain may linger, and that’s okay because it reminds us who we intend to be. But there is less rumination. That might have been BS is what keeps people stuck, not the sadness. The sadness makes us human.

Interestingly, for many, the bigger the mistake, the harder it is to acknowledge our regret. I imagine this happens when we act so out of character that our minds cannot reconcile what has happened with our self-concept. I wish it were not true that I have many such examples from my life, but I do. I have acted in ways almost unimaginable to the person I am today or even the person I thought I was then. And I have witnessed many others erase such breaches from their conscious mind.

I don’t know how everyone bridges that gap between the unimaginable and honesty, but I can convey how I do it. I look as earnestly as possible at the impact (as I see it). When I looked at how unhappy my son was and listened to his words, the pathway to seeing my role more clearly was illuminated. To do this without doubling down on self-hatred, I also had to see the trauma in my past and proceed with dogged self-compassion.

Don’t skip the hard stuff. If you are receiving feedback that you screwed up big time, resist the impulse to flee or project. Inquire gently and do the work that needs to be done.

But, I Don’t Feel Bad…

What about circumstances in which others feel hurt by our actions, and we are not regretful? The first step here is to explore more deeply our part. After authentic introspection (and some therapy?), we may decide that we still don’t feel accountable for the other person’s pain. The choice, then, is to offer a gesture of contrition as a pathway toward reconciliation or hold your ground and accept the consequences of diverging opinions. Alternatively, you may find that just knowing someone hurts is enough of a reason to regret what happened. Making things right then becomes something you are happy to do.


It might be helpful to think about processing regret in two “stages.” The first step is to reconcile the transgression internally. Before you can determine the best path forward with anyone else your decisions may have impacted, you need to make things right with you.

To find the self-compassion needed to process the emotional pain of regret and free ourselves from persistent rumination, we need to examine and question the meaning we are making. I don’t know about you, but my default meaning when I screw up is not very kind. It is also elusive. It takes time and honest inquiry to uncover what I am telling myself (and maybe others) about what it all means. It’s worth the effort to make something beautiful out of the wreckage (or, at least, something less awful).

Some examples of common meaning (i.e., beliefs) might include: I’m broken. I can’t do anything right. Or things like life is too hard. Or, life isn’t fair, so what do you expect? We cannot work with this stuff because it is not real. Like loss of trust, these abstract and generalized beliefs make healing effectively impossible. They are just stories. To heal deeply, we must look past these to what happened. We don’t harm people with beliefs; we harm them with actions (or inaction).

Forgiveness is a reframing process. Self-forgiveness is often about reframing regret (or shame). Once we embody it, the power of forgiveness is that it naturally offers meaning that heals. That meaning is we cannot change the past. We have to work with what’s going on right now to find healing. Recognizing this in the context of mistakes we perceive we have made transforms regret into grief. Grieving is still painful, but most of us know it is a process that takes time. When it comes to run-of-the-mill transgressions (is there such a thing?), once we detach from the meaning, the emotional processing does not take much time. If we can stop condemning, we are apt to want to get on with life.

If you find accepting that we can never really know what might have been, or if forgiveness does not feel achievable right now, there are other ways to reframe your relationship to what happened. I find reminding myself that I am not superhuman useful. We sometimes tend to overestimate our influence and impact, so looking at how we perceive our role might help. My mark is rarely as dramatic as I imagine it to be.

For some, imagining how it could have been worse is an effective tool. The key is to investigate your meaning-making in such a way that maintains your accountability but allows for compassion and understanding. Keep looking until an honest but liberating understanding emerges.

If you find yourself unwilling to do this work, you are punishing yourself. Which, in turn, re-harms those around you. Have you ever wondered why adult children struggle so much with parents who refuse to move on or stay in the victim role? Being around someone who refuses to let go of pain is difficult for everyone.

Beyond meaning-making, another reframing strategy is to actively look for points of light (positive memories) in the story. When something painful happens, we tend to narrow our focus to the transgression alone and filter out anything that might bring expansiveness or space to the story. This may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if it appeals to you, try creating a storyboard or visual representation of happy or positive memories related to the people involved or the timeframe (or both). With a little effort, you’re likely to find some points of light to help guide you through the pain. You may even discover new meanings this way.

Making Things Right (aka Making Amends)

With some level of inner resolution, it is time to move on to the critical work of repairing what we can. This piece is as important as the internal work of reframing for our well-being and building and maintaining long-term relationships. Part of cultivating vibrant bonds is letting those you love know who you are and what to expect of you. When we violate that trust, even unintentionally, taking corrective action facilitates accountability and affirms expectations. It’s much easier to live as the person you intend to be when people around you reflect that person back to you.

The activity of restitution may be as simple as an apology or engaging in empathic dialogue. It may require more than that. Earlier, we explored the experience of regret after saying something hurtful to a friend. Part of the response was to apologize or clarify. In many situations, this may be all that is needed. We want to avoid overcorrecting or making a bigger deal out of something than it is. By accepting our mistakes and conveying our remorse, we create space for those we have hurt to move forward more freely.

The key to making amends is to focus on what you believe the other person or people need and not what you want. They may want to reconcile or need distance. Either way, it is essential that you respect their wishes. If reconciliation is not possible, that is another opportunity to learn what you need to grow and improve.

The repair activity may be direct or indirect. Let’s look at an example to illustrate. A former client, Gary, found himself in a mess at work after gossiping about a colleague he’d befriended. During their off-work time together, he learned that his colleague had made up some of his work history. To elevate his status at the company, Gary disclosed this information to several people at work. An apology may be needed in a situation like this, but in Gary’s case, his friend did not know and was not affected by Gary’s actions. He determined that telling his friend was not restorative and decided not to apologize. Had Gary done so, that would have been an example of making direct amends.

Even though his friend never knew about the breach of trust, because Gary felt regret for his actions, he needed to look at why he did what he did and take steps to repair his friend’s reputation at work. Gary needed to clear things up with the other people. Those conversations were his attempt at indirect repair.

An offhanded comment is one thing, but what about the traumas we may have caused? What about the big stuff, like cheating or physically hurting someone? First, it would be wise to engage someone like a therapist or trusted friend to help first with the reframing process. Navigating the why and reconciling our sense of self is essential to see how we might begin the makes things right. What that looks like will be different for everyone but remembering to focus on the other person’s (or people’s) needs is essential. It may be the case that any attempt at direct amends can cause them to feel worse. Working through others, if possible, to see if anything can be done to help may be a better strategy if this is the case. Sometimes, repair is not possible, and we must live with that outcome.

I wonder if those who proclaim to have no regrets say so as an aspirational impulse to deny the pain of regret or if they believe every choice they have ever made has been for the better. I also wonder if those around them would agree. My thesis is no. I suspect those who have felt hurt by someone who avoids accountability would find healing in knowing the other person felt remorse for what they did or failed to do. It seems only fair to do our part to make things right when possible.

Processing regret resolves acute emotional pain and quiets the unkind voices in our heads. But, even with acceptance and compassion, it is possible to still wish things had been different. That is regret, and it is a good thing. I wish I had been there when my son’s molars came in and when he made the football team. And I wish I hadn’t suffered so much. I don’t expect that will ever change. The key to finding peace is remembering we cannot change the past. If we are honest with ourselves, process our pain, and forgive, we are free from suffering for those mistakes. And, just as importantly, we support those around us by doing our best to make things whole again.

  • [i] Tversky, A., & Kahneman, D. (1982). The simulation heuristic. Judgment under uncertainty: Heuristics and biases, 201-208.
  • [ii] Gilovich, T., & Medvec, V. H. (1994). The temporal pattern to the experience of regret. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 67(3), 357–365.

Background Reading

  • Landman, J. (1987). Regret: A theoretical and conceptual analysis.
  • Gilovich, T., & Medvec, V. H. (1995). The experience of regret: What, when, and why. Psychological Review, 102(2), 379–395.