How to Stop Regretting Your Decisions (And What to Do When You Feel Regret)
You’ve made a plan. You’re going to do it. Maybe you're going to the gym tomorrow, you're meeting a friend for dinner, or you're finally going to ask your boss for that raise. But then something crops up, and you end up doing exactly what you didn't intend—sitting on the couch and letting another day pass you by while you feel guilt and regret.
If you're wondering how to stop regretting your decisions, the short answer is twofold: make choices you won't regret and accept your choices for what they are. In other words, when you set out to talk to your boss, go to the gym, or hang out with a pal, follow through. Likewise, whenever you do something, follow your values to avoid actions you'll later regret.
But for most of us, the answer is a bit more complex. When procrastination and willpower come into play, our choices are less black and white. Here's how to avoid the anxiety that can come from making decisions and how to stop regretting your decisions once you’ve made them.
Why Choices Overwhelm Us
Most choices aren't binary. No answer's clearly right or wrong. Decisions are often complicated, and life can throw roadblocks our way.
Perhaps you planned to talk to your boss today about that promotion, but then the quarterly numbers came in, and you realized that your timing wasn't right. Maybe you planned to go to the gym, but you're feeling rundown, and self-care was a better choice for your body. Or maybe you had to cancel on your friend because another obligation came up or you weren't feeling emotionally up to social interaction.
When we have a lot of goals, even positive ones, we can start to feel overwhelmed, and it can trigger a “shut down.” We might make poor or impulsive decisions to do what feels good or comforting in the moment, rather than actions that will move us toward our targets. Then those feelings of anxiety and regret creep in, and the circuit is complete. We play it over and over, beat ourselves up, feel guilty, ashamed, or sad.
So how do we make the right choice? How do we discover our inner motivation and make decisions that won’t lead to regret? And what about those bigger regretful choices—when we make a mistake and feel bad that our actions hurt someone else?
No matter the size of regret, they still take up energy and brain space. Little regrets may feel like "no big deal" on the surface, but then we can find ourselves fixating on them and replaying them over and over. It all relates back to anxiety. When we experience anxiety, it prevents us from seeing things in proportion. We have a harder time measuring how big the problem really is and how much it will (or won't) impact our lives. How many of us have replayed a cringy comment or embarrassing gaffe over and over when we know that probably no one noticed, or it's already forgotten?
When we experience anxiety, we have difficulty distinguishing between little inconsequential choices like, “should I wear this outfit today,” and big life choices like, “should I accept this job offer?” If all our problems—big and small—occupy the same emotional weight, we can easily get overwhelmed.
Make Decisions You Won’t Regret
If you’re wondering how to stop regretting your decisions, there are a few exercises and tools you can employ to help you feel less overwhelmed by choice.
1. Identify Internal Triggers
When we feel overwhelmed by the decisions on our plate, it can help us to identify those internal triggers that make us feel overwhelmed. For example, when we believe that every decision must be the "right" one, even small decisions can paralyze us.
When you start feeling overwhelmed by choices, take your emotional temperature. How are you feeling right now about this decision? Try to examine where your emotions are coming from and how they may cloud your choice. Think of the bigger picture. Will this matter in the long term? When short-term emotions overtake long-term considerations, consider how you would advise your best friend. When we step back, we can gain some clarity on the situation.
2. Break it Down
When there's a problem you can't seem to let go of, it can help to break it down. If something is really bothering you, or you regret a decision, break it down, examine it, and tackle the solution piece by piece. You may have heard the saying, "How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time." If your problems and regrets feel insurmountable, pick an action you can take now to bring forth a resolution. Break it down into 4-5 pieces and set a timeframe to tackle each.
Breaking down your problem may be as simple as triaging your regretful choice to see how you could prevent it in the future. For example, if you feel bad you didn't work out this morning, consider the steps you could take next time to get out the door and break a sweat. Maybe it means putting your running shoes by the bed, queuing up a favorite playlist, or even sleeping in your workout gear. Find ways to motivate yourself next time and write today's setback off as a learning opportunity.
3. Do Some Research
Faced with an important choice? Carefully research information before you decide to avoid regretting your choices later. When we educate ourselves upfront about something, we go into the situation with greater clarity and knowledge. We often have more significant regrets about decisions that have gone awry if we didn't consider all our options beforehand.
It's also important that you consider the sources of your information. Look at multiple sources and try to make decisions not to please others but rather to focus on the best possible outcome. For example, your father-in-law may offer advice about the type of car you should buy, but it can also help to read Consumer Reports, research the background, and get a vehicle you actually like.
4. Weigh Your Options
Once you've researched your decision, write it down. Make a simple pros and cons list. It may seem like a silly exercise, but it can be an unbelievably powerful tool when we're trying to make a choice. As you write the list, really assess the impact of your choice. Is this such a big problem or decision? What priority should this take?
Once you’ve written down your pros and cons, the decision often becomes quite clear, and you can move forward with confidence. None of us can predict the future, of course, but when you’ve done your due diligence, you will likely feel comfortable no matter the ultimate outcome.
5. Phone a Friend
Still struggling with worry about a potential regret? Ask for insight from a trusted person, especially someone who will hold you accountable. When we're worried about a past decision or a potential problem, we can find ourselves stuck in a feedback loop. We start thinking about our regret, and it reinforces our sense of hopelessness and helplessness. It puts us into "freeze mode," where we have tunnel vision and can't see the positive options or benefits.
A good friend can help us get back to the moment and put things in perspective. Often, they can remind us that we can handle what life throws our way, and they can help us break down our problems into manageable pieces.
Getting Beyond Our Regrets
So, you've made a decision, and you have remorse. If you procrastinated or avoided a task, how can you reframe it to help you let go of these regrets?
Consider reframing your choice to take a break as self-care rather than a failure. See your decision as an opportunity to recharge and look forward to the energy that you will have once you're firing on all cylinders. We all need a break sometimes, both mental and physical. Athletes know the importance of rest days when they're training—it's during those breaks when the body repairs muscle and gains strength.
We need days when we're structured and busy and days when we relax and rest. During our downtime, we encode our memories and refresh our emotional bandwidth—we process what's going on in our lives. Then when we come back, we're even stronger than before.
Mindfulness and being present and aware of the moment can help us clarify our decisions. It can help us stay focused, channel our attention, and be aware of our motivations and senses. Mindfulness is also a good tool for pushing aside intrusive thoughts, so we can stop replaying those regrets over and over. Finally, it helps us improve the emotional capacity that we all need to deal with everyday problems.
When we make decisions, we shouldn't fear regret too much. Feelings of remorse are an inevitable part of life. If you can say you live without regret, you may not be having enough adventures (or you may be rationalizing missteps and not examining your responsibility when things go wrong). When we anticipate regret, we tend to overemphasize how much we will feel. Often regret is quick and sharp. It hurts, but then it passes.
So, when you make decisions, think carefully and dispassionately with as much valid information as possible. Weigh it against your beliefs, and then go for it. If you regret it, well, keep in mind, there's always another choice to make down the road. Nothing in life is certain, and we don't need certainty to make decisions. We harness intuition and confidence when we accept that certainty doesn't exist. When we embrace uncertainty, we drop the angst.
But what about those big poor choices that we regret? Well, we all make mistakes. It's undoubtedly regretful and painful when our actions hurt someone else. One way we can avoid these big mistakes is to live within our value systems. If we've done something that's not in those values, assess how we can prevent a similar error in the future. Many of us fail to recognize that the things that really bother us and fill us with regret are the actions outside of who we truly are.
Align with your values and move forward. Is forgiveness part of your value system? It's crucial that you extend that forgiveness to yourself as well. We may need to apologize, make amends, and work to ensure we don't do something regretful again, but mentally beating ourselves up over and over leaves us stuck and unable to move on.
If you feel fretting about regrets has turned into rumination, it may be time to get help. Rumination is deeper than fretting or worry. It is when we think of the same thing repeatedly without relief. The constant worry of rumination can become distressing and start to interfere with your day-to-day life.
Fortunately, a trained therapist or counselor can understand and help you put things in perspective. Therapy helps us figure out why things may have unfolded a certain way. It can help us align our values with our behaviors and examine our thought patterns. Counseling can also offer us coping strategies to improve our mental bandwidth and move forward without the paralyzing sense of overwhelm.
If you need assistance working through feelings of regret, please reach out. We have a team of trained practitioners ready to listen and help you move forward with assuredness and confidence.