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Don’t Let Regrets Stress You Out

Many people get hung up on regrets. What they wish they’d had or done takes up more real estate in their heads than the lives they’re currently living. To dwell in regret is like walking down a street looking backwards. While making yourself miserable, you miss the only part of your life that matters: now.

Regrets are also called having a case of “shoulda, woulda, coulda” which has yet another name according to Amy Alkon, The Advice Goddess (Sarasota Herald-Tribune, 7/30/15, E47): “counterfactual thinking—“thinking ‘counter’ to the actual ‘facts’ of what happened.” Of course, it’s fine to intentionally consider experiences in your past to understand why they happened as they did and to learn from them to do better in the future. It’s fine consciously to play out “what if” scenarios. What is totally unhealthy—and may drive you to eat mindlessly for comfort—is raking over the crummy decisions you’ve made in the past or the awful things that happened through no fault of your own.

Alkon says, “The unhealthy kind of counterfactual thinking [of regrets] is setting aside the now to obsess over how great things surely would have been, if only… Never mind how pointless this is.” P-o-i-n-t-l-e-s-s. It only makes you feel badly and ruins the present because you’re mentally in a different time zone. Tell me, when you focus on what you didn’t get or should have gotten—a nicer mother, a stable father, a brother who didn’t sexually abuse you, or a spouse who adored you—does it really help you feel empowered in the moment? I don’t mean to sound cold, but not everyone gets what they deserve. That’s not because they did something wrong or are bad people. It’s just how life works out. You may have been a victim back when, but you’re not now unless you’re victimizing yourself mentally by counterfactual thinking and living in regret.

Alkon says that research has found “that…physical acts of ‘closure’ led to psychological closure and that treating thoughts as physical objects makes them as disposable as objects.” This means that doing something physical to provide closure will help you let go of your regrets. Write regrets down on a piece of paper, then burn it. Throw away old photos or love letters. Do a ritual for each and every major regret that’s taking you away from the present.

Pay attention to when your mind wanders back to regrets. Ask yourself, “What purpose does this thinking serve? Will it make my life better?” Remember, too, whenever you reach for food mindlessly to question whether you’re feeling regretful. If so, don’t eat. Instead, bring yourself back to the present and feel grateful for what you have now.