How To Let Go Of The Past: 3 Steps For Regret

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In this post, you’ll learn how to let go of the past.  “Regret can be your worst enemy or your best friend; you get to decide which.” Regrets are like a hammer, they can hurt you or you can use them to build the life you really care about. In this video, you’ll learn how to channel the emotional pain of regret into action to create the life you want. 

Quick Nutshell

I get asked all the time how to deal with regrets. A lot of people, as they start to make progress on their anxiety or depression, they start to feel intense regret about the things they missed out on in the past. Or when people start to improve their relationship skills, they regret past mistakes. 

Or missed opportunities, lost connections, or late starts. 

And regret can really hurt, it’s a painful emotion. But here’s what’s important- You can learn how to transform regrets into energy. Let’s walk through how:

Regrets Are In The Present

OK, first, people get really held up on regret because the thing they regret is in the past, they can’t go back and ask the girl out or do the degree or fix the relationship, so they feel helpless to do anything about how they feel, because we can’t change the past. But here’s the thing- Those feelings aren’t in the past, those feelings are here and now. 

That feeling of regret is like a hammer- when you point it inward, it really hurts. When you ruminate on your mistakes over and over, you can really hurt yourself and feel depressed or hopeless or like “Why Try” but the truth is, just like a hammer, those feelings aren’t bad. Emotions serve a function- like thirst- thirst reminds us to drink, here and now. Regrets are normal and they mean that you care about living a good life. That painful feeling is like the rumble strip on the side of the road that buzzes when you’re drifting, the feeling of regret is a warning to straighten out your course. 

Regret is right here in the present. That feeling, that activation is right here, right now. Channel all that energy, that e-motion into taking action now. One of my favorite sayings is “The best time to plant a tree was 40 years ago, the next best time is now.” 

One of the biggest mistakes I see people make in therapy and in life is that their goal is to make their feelings go away, instead of learning how to use them. It’s like saying ‘Dang I hit my hand with this hammer, I’m going to throw it away” instead of learning how to hammer correctly. 

So we take that feeling of regret, we take that activated energy, and like a hammer we turn it outward, we point it in a direction and we use it to build something. (In this case it’s a shelter for my chickens) but in your case, you’re going to build the life that you really care about. 

So- How Do We Do It?

Number 1. Get super clear about what the regret is. (Usually we need to write about it to get clarity). OK, 

  1. you regret not asking that girl out. 
  2. You regret not going on the trip
  3. You regret Not leaving an abusive relationship sooner
  4. I regret all the things I avoided because of anxiety or depression
  5. I regret not going to the funeral, or to the deathbed. 
  6. I regret all the mistakes I made in a relationship I care about

Now- Step 2. Get super clear about what the value is (And to do this, you’ve got to write it down.

  1. I value living, taking risks, doing the uncomfortable thing instead of always avoiding discomfort
  2. I value adventure, connection, courage
  3. I value setting boundaries, creating healthy relationships, speaking up, knowing my own worth
  4. Taking care of my health, pushing myself to face my fears, taking action to get motivated, reaching out for support and education and treatment, 
  5. Being present in relationships even when emotions seem overwhelming, putting love higher than emotional comfort
  6. This one requires you to get more specific- did you yell a lot? Then you value emotional regulation, communication, and healthy problem solving skills. Did you just beat yourself up a lot? Then you value making repairs, letting go of perfectionism (acceptance and compassion) and striving to be vulnerable and improve a little each day with gentleness. 

Step 3- We heal the rift, not in the past but right here in the present moment!

Values are not outcomes, they are our present moment direction. We can always always choose if we are lining up with our values right here in the present moment. Do you regret not having kids in your youth- what do you value? Building a family, taking care of others, sacrificing your needs for others, building a community, showing love. There are literally hundreds of ways you can act on that value right here in the present moment. Adopt a grandparent program, connect with family members, volunteer to hold babies at the local hospital, connect with a neighbor who has small children and ask how you can support them. 

We have to let go of magical thinking that says “But I had to get married to do that” and instead, embody the pathway, the direction instead. I wanted to get married- what would that look like in the present moment- putting myself out there, meeting people, building the skills to have healthy relationships, building communication skills. We can ALWAYS act on our values in the present moment. We’ve got to shift our focus from an outcome (getting married) to a direction (building connection) 

I think we ruminate because dreaming of changing things in the past is always easier than actually changing things in the present. Here’s a great example from my life:

Once when I was in grad school I had been on a handful of dates with this guy, let’s call him Alexander, but then things didn’t go anywhere after that. About 6 months later I’m visiting my parents on Christmas Day and guess who knocks on the door- Alex, I had no idea he was coming and was pretty surprised to see him. My parents wondering if there was something going on they didn’t know about…it was kinda weird, but we found a quiet place to catch up on life, talked for a bit and then he said “I really wish we had tried to see if this relationship would work, I really regret that we didn’t keep dating”. Now just to clarify, I didn’t break up with him or anything, we just never were exclusive. So I basically replied, “There’s no reason we can’t try dating again, we’re both single, I’m willing- let’s give it a shot…” and then he got super awkward and said something about needing to go fix something on his car, and basically that was the end of that. 

For all I know he had a dozen reasons why he didn’t want to date me…that’s cool, but if we take it at face value…what he said is the essence of unhelpful rumination.  It’s this whole idea of thinking a lot about your regrets and then never doing anything about them when you do have the chance.

I don’t blame him, he was probably still gaining those relationship skills, like we all have to do in our lives., But this concept…”I’m going to think about and talk about all the things that I regret, but not do anything about them”, prevented him from being able to connect on a deeper level or form a more meaningful relationship.  It’s this type of thinking that’s disordered. 

So take that hammer, take that emotional energy and use it to build something. Use that feeling to help you overcome the fear of asking someone out, of taking the trip, or getting out of your comfort zone. Identify how you can live that value right here in the present moment.

  1. If I like someone, I’m going to tell them, If I feel to do something nice for someone I’ll do it without second guessing, If I feel the need to speak up but might get shut down, I’ll speak up anyway. 
  2. I’m going to plan a trip- whether it’s taking the subway for the first time in years or flying to siberia, I’m going to stretch my comfort zone. I’m going to initiate a trip with my friends and follow through
  3. Next time I see someone getting bullied at work, I’m going to say something. Next time someone mistreats me, I’m walking away, standing up for myself or communicating assertively. Practice practice practice
  4. I’m going to do one thing every day that scares me. One thing every day that is hard. I’m going to take cold showers, or make that phone call or go somewhere that is uncomfortable for me
  5. When I know someone is sick, or depressed, or dying, i’m leaning in, instead of leaning out. When a co-worker seems off, sad or down, I’m going to ask them to tell me more. If my dog needs to be put down, I’m staying in the room with him. 
  6. I’m going to prioritize my relationship. When I make a mistake I’m going to apologize and seek to make repairs. Today. Tomorrow. Each day. 

If you think you’re too old to do something- let’s use a college degree as an example, you’re 40 and you don’t have a degree. In four years you are going to be 44. You can either be 44 with a degree or without. 

So those are the three steps to turning regrets into your best friend. Regrets can be  a rumble strip guiding you back onto the pathway you really want to be on. 

I think that there are 4 real obstacles to doing this. Rumination, Lack of skills. Shame. And Self-Loathing. 

Rumination is where we get stuck in the mental habit of thinking about our regrets over and over. If you find yourself getting stuck in rumination- check out my video on scheduled worry- you can do the same thing with rumination- schedule a time each day to intentionally regret stuff, then set a timer with lotus bud to prompt you to check in with yourself throughout the day, if you’re ruminating not during your scheduled rumination time, practice mindfulness to catch those thoughts and just say “I’ll ruminate on my regrets at 6pm, now I’m going to redirect my attention to what I really do care about.” 

For self Loathing, we need to replace it with Compassion. It’s the best source of long term motivation. If you’re having a hard time developing it, you could try writing a short letter to yourself, forgiving yourself for the past and committing to the future. 

If you’re drowning in shame for something you did- Incorporate support to let go of shame (Tell God, tell a friend, use the experience to share with others or to teach. Channel all that activated energy into movement, not stagnation). Shame dies in the sunlight. We can never truly connect with others if we are hiding the parts of ourselves that we’re ashamed of. 

And seek closure: Wherever possible or helpful make amends, apologize for past mistakes, or find ways to rectify certain situations. Or use your experience to teach others. 

And lastly- Skills– Regret is an emotion that accompanies learning. What can you learn from that experience? What skills do you need to develop? I regret not having many friends in high school, but I simply lacked basic social skills like Introducing myself to new people and asking them about themselves. When I learned those skills in college, I made a bunch of friends. 

You can always convert mistakes into experience by asking “What can I learn from this”.  

It can also help to clarify your Locus of control, categorize each regret into things you can change or things that are outside your control. Focus on finding solutions or closure for the former and accepting the latter.

So this is how you make regret your friend, 

  1. Get Super clear about what the regret is
  2. Get super clear about what the value is
  3. Take action, here in the present moment, to have integrity with your values. Regret is here in the present moment, use that energy to live the life you truly care about. 

“Make the most of your regrets; never smother your sorrow, but tend and cherish it till it comes to have a separate and integral interest. To regret deeply is to live afresh.” – Henry David Thoreau

If you’d like to learn more skills to work through tough emotions like regret, sadness, anger, or anxiety- check out my online course: How to Process Your Emotions, it’s got 30 short videos and a big workbook to help you learn the essential skills to process through your emotions and get better at feeling. Check it out, the link is in the description. 

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