Regret is an emotion that can increase your stress level, consume your energy, and lead you into a proverbial emotional maze from which there is no escape. Regrets can haunt you.
All emotions have a message. Mastering an emotion involves understanding the message that the emotion communicates to you about how you perceive your world, taking a breath and assessing the validity of the message, and choosing an appropriate response. You can master emotions such as anger, sadness, anxiety, jealousy and even envy. In fact, I wrote a book entitled Beyond Anger Management: Master Your Anger as a Strategic Tool. If you haven’t done so already, go back to the home page of this blog and download the first chapter of Beyond Anger Management.
Regret can also be mastered if you change your approach to it as I will show you below.
If regret is a troubling emotion for you or someone you know, then you, or they, may have allowed your regret to overwhelm you. When this happens, mastering regret becomes impossible and regret becomes emotionally draining and psychologically intrusive.
Let me explain.
The message of regret is that, based on some future outcome, you either did something you later wish you had not done or you did not do something you later wish you had done. By itself, this can be a healthy message. And we will use this aspect of regret below.
The darker side of regret which is the source of all the emotional pain associated with the feeling is the self-recrimination and blame that people engage in when they feel regret. This can be expressed as: “I was such an idiot when I (did or did not do) X!” or “How could I be so stupid to (have done or not done) X?” or “I lost so much when I (did or did not do) X.” The insidious face of regret is the message that not only was an opportunity ruined by my action or inaction but that opportunity was both important and, now, irretrievable and I am both blameworthy and incompetent for blowing the opportunity.
Put another way, regret continually beats you over the head with the message that you can’t change what you did and you can’t recover from the action or inaction you displayed. This is the emotional box canyon I mentioned above. Not only did you screw up but you are incompetent and must suffer forever because you can’t change what you did and the outcome you created.
While it may be true that the opportunity is lost and that you are responsible for your actions, there usually is no justification for remaining stuck in the past.
So how do you master the emotion of regret and use it to move you forward?
The key to mastering regret is the acronym IWBNI (Ih-whib-knee). The letters stand for ItWould Be Nice If.
Here is how and why this approach works.
When you change the message from “I should (or should not) have done X.” to “It would have been nice if I had (done or not done) X.”, you acknowledge the importance of the specific opportunity that was lost or ruined, you accept responsibility for what you did or did not do, you remove the self-recrimination element, and you give yourself a chance to learn from the past and move forward.
Using the IWBNI approach focuses your attention on what is true. This is why the approach is so powerful.
In every case, it is totally true that It Would Be Nice If the situation had been handled differently.
Secondly, acknowledging the importance of the lost opportunity and accepting responsibility satisfies the thinking, or logical, part of your brain and makes it possible for you to remove the self-recrimination, learn from the past and move forward.
You are now mastering your regret by acknowledging and validating the message of the emotion that something in the past led to undesirable outcomes, you are examining your past behavior and putting it into an emotionally acceptable context, and you are choosing how you want to respond to the emotion.
I welcome any comments on the above.