3 steps to turning regret into a positive force

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Regret makes us human. Regret makes us better.

Daniel Pink


Have you ever been asked the question do you have any regrets?

Or in going back over your life do you sometimes focus on things you did you wish you hadn’t done or the other way around?

I am a great proponent of being in the present and very much support Eckhart Tolle’s power of now. The past has gone and the future will never come. I have always liked his quote “Realize deeply that the present moment is all you really have.”

However, I also believe in the power of reflection and learning from your past and the mistakes you have made. As they say, failure is the best teacher!

Some people I know are very quick to say they have no regrets and that they are always looking forward and not looking back. Personally, I think we all have some form of regret at times.

We are human, we all make mistakes and make the wrong decisions. It is really important we learn from our experiences, both positive and negative, and this helps us grow.

What I do know though is that there is a fine line between reflecting and ruminating.

Rumination, going around and round in circles is not constructive and can lead to feelings of low self-worth and obsessive thinking patterns. This is a rabbit hole I have been down too many times. I know it well!

According to Daniel Pink in his bestselling book, The Power of Regrets: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward, regret can help us make better decisions, perform better and bring more meaning into our lives.

Pink analysed over 20,000 answers to questions about regret. His research shows the importance of regret and how it is a positive force than can enhance our lives.

People regret things in all areas of their life such as family, relationships, education, career, finance, and health.

Pink defines four core regrets:

Foundational regret is about our security and stability.

Boldness regret is about opportunities we have missed. Pink states that as time goes on people regret what they didn’t do more than what they did do.

Moral regret is about not aligning with our core values and not doing what we believe is the right thing.

Connection regret is about neglecting people who give matter to us and give purpose in our lives.

According to Pink we can turn regret into a positive force in our lives through a 3-step process.

Step 1 Self-disclosure: Relive and Relieve

We can discuss our thoughts, feelings and actions about regret with someone or even do some reflective writing about what we can learn and how it has made us grow as a person.

This first step helps organise and integrate our thoughts and has many physical and mental benefits.

Step 2 Self-compassion:  Normalise and Neutralise

We can be our own worst enemies. We tend to treat ourselves far worse than we would treat others when we make a mistake. The inner critic can have a field day! Instead, we’re much better off being kinder to ourselves. In fact, be our own best friend!

By practising self-compassion, we neutralize our negative experiences, understanding that they represent an unpleasant moment rather than defining our life.

Step 3. Self-distancing: Analyse and Strategise

We can practice mindfulness, look at our feelings of regret from a distance without judging ourselves and seeing the problem from a different perspective. We can look at our regret through a future lens. How would we feel about the regret then? By doing this, it can lose its power.

Pink suggests we can address our regrets in the second person. Research found that referring to oneself as “you” rather than “I” can strengthen our commitment to improving behaviour.

Sonya Lyubomirsky, wellbeing scientist from the USA has some excellent research showing that when we write about negative experiences, we feel better. By disclosing them, we feel as through a burden has been lifted and it can help us make sense of them.

I am a great believer in personal reflective writing and how doing this on a regular basis can truly enhance your life. One positive action when you feel you have regretful memories and are heading down the path of rumination is to write about your regret each day for a number of days. Writing it down can take away the power of the regretful feeling.

My Life Journal course, a 5-week online course teaching you skills in coaching yourself to a more fulfilling and meaningful life, has some excellent tools on the power of reflective writing.

By following Pink’s 3 steps above, we can relieve the burden of carrying a regret, practising self-compassion helps us relabel it as a human suffering and self-distancing helps us move forward.

Though regret has traditionally been labelled as a negative emotion, it has the power to help us learn and grow. As Pink says, regret doesn’t just make us human; it also makes us better.

Jeanette Brown

I have been in Education as a teacher, career coach and executive manager over many years.
I'm also an experienced coach who is passionate about supporting people in finding real meaning and purpose in their lives, building a resilient, grounded inner self and achieving their desired goals.

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