When I talk with people, one of the most commonly expressed emotions is regret. Whether because of something they did as a child, a teen, or a young adult, or maybe even something recent, people have regrets. In fact, if you have no regrets, you are extremely blessed or just disconnected with reality.
Regret can be a positive emotion. We all look back and wonder how things might have been different if we had made a different choice at one time or another. That is normal. Regret can cause us to change our direction in life, making better choices and choosing new directions.
What isn’t normal, or healthy, however, is letting those wonderings, or regrets, dog our current lives, causing depression and anxiety, and even chronic health problems. We find ourselves living in the past, trying to somehow make up for something we did, real or imagined, so that we can bring some sort of resolution to the situation. Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try, we find ourselves continually living in regret, unable to change the past.
Research has shown that continually living in regret, repetitive negative rumination and self-blame, can negatively affect not only mental health, but also hormonal and immune system functioning (“The Psychology of Regret” Psychology Today). Continual regret also causes the individual to withdraw from current situations, as they are so wrapped up in the past.
How do we deal with regret in a healthy manner? While some thoughts of the past can be good in order to help us change and grow, we must move past regret in order to live a healthy, fulfilled life. So how do we manage regret and use it for our personal growth and health?
1. Use the emotion to help you make the changes that are necessary in your life. Consider if the situation can be changed, for example, ongoing behaviors that are hurting yourself or others. Recognize what you have done and resolve it, changing your behaviors and moving on with the help of God. Many people stall at this point because they feel they cannot change on their own. This is where faith comes in.
Paul knew this confrontation with himself. “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25).
Recognize that you cannot change the past but must instead accept it, make peace with it, and move on, making changes for a healthier life.
2. Realize that if there is nothing you can do, you need to just let it go. This reminds me of David’s grieving for his son in 2 Samuel 12. David had slept with Uriah’s wife and got her pregnant. He then arranged Uriah’s death on the battlefield and took the widow as his own wife. The child born from their illicit relationship became ill, and David laid of his face before God, interceding for the child, taking nothing to eat. The child eventually died, causing those around David to fear for him. However, David got up, washed himself, and got something to eat. When asked why the change, “He answered, “While the child was still alive, I fasted and wept. I thought, ‘Who knows? The Lord may be gracious to me and let the child live.’ But now that he is dead, why should I go on fasting? Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me.” David returned to his life and rebuilt it with his new wife Bathsheba, eventually fathering his son, Solomon, who would reign after him as king in Israel.
3. Look at the situation clearly. Seek out forgiveness and move on, whether it comes or not. In Matthew 5:23-24, Jesus tells us that we are to go to those who have something against us and to attempt reconciliation. It is important that we do everything we can to resolve the situation, but this will not always work. The other person may be unwilling or unable to offer forgiveness; however, at this point we are to move on and to find healing in Christ. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Pray for those who don’t forgive you, but don’t let their lack of forgiveness drag you down into the depths of despair and loss. Find forgiveness in God’s grace and mercy and move forward with your life.
Regret can be helpful, but it can also be unhealthy and damaging to the individual. It is important to use the emotion of regret to make changes in our lives, but it is also necessary to move past the emotion, resolving it by confession and receiving forgiveness, not only from others, but from God. Only then can we live healthy, fulfilled lives.