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How to turn regret into a positive emotion

We all have regrets, and that's fine. The trick is to use the emotion to make your life better. Lounge speaks to psychologists to tell you how

How you can learn from regret.
How you can learn from regret. (Istockphoto)

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Thoughts of regret inevitably crop up in our minds as the year comes to an end. Sanjana Prasad, a trauma-informed counselling psychologist and psychotherapist based in Bengaluru, believes that regret could be a socially conditioned way in which we all relate to success and growth. She says that if there wasn’t anything to change for the better in our lives, then we would never feel the need to improve. “The function of any kind of unpleasant emotion is to facilitate reflection and change. The discomfort of the present ideally propels one to think about getting out of things or situations that cause this discomfort,” she says. Some people may experience this discomfort as anger, others as sadness or worry. Some experience it as regret. 

Shambhavi Kumaria, a counselling psychologist at All Things Mental Health Counselling Services in Mohali, Punjab, observes that regret is an emotion that can occur during self-reflection. “Since reflection often goes hand-in-hand with overthinking and overthinking largely is an activity where people often rethink the mistakes they made, or the tasks they didn’t do or how they could have argued better with someone, so that is why regret is an emotion that crops up during reflection,” she says. 

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Prasad states that people who experience regret often may have some form of social or familial conditioning. For example, they may be prone to processing unpleasantness through regret, or their families deal with unpleasantness may be through experiencing regret. She says, “Regret also often gives people the illusion of control,” she says. 

Thus, regret is a common emotion which engulfs us during reflection because it is inherently done while feeling regret or guilt. “Due to our culture and the constant socially constructed timelines that are around us, passage of time always makes us question whether we have reached that benchmark or not. So, every new year, we feel tinges of sadness, guilt, anger or incompleteness,” Kumaria says.

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However, there are ways to deal with regret, which, as both Kumaria and Prasad say, can be of great use. First of all, learn to break social patterns and draw the line between achievable and non-achievable tasks. Question whether your tasks are and whether we wanted to achieve those things in the first place or not. Second, if you count the things you regret, also count the things you have achieved. Third, go easy on yourself. If you cannot give that ease to yourself, then you can ask for it from a person you feel safe with. 

Learn to acknowledge your emotions. Journaling about it or talking to someone about it are great ways to find clarity. It can also help to process these emotions in therapy with the help of a trained professional. Different people feel regret in varying intensities. It can help to talk about the nuances in an environment that is designated to process unpleasant emotions. 

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Find out how feeling regret can be of help to you, and, finally, know that it is absolutely okay to feel regret. It is a testament to the fact that we want more for ourselves and we want to grow and achieve more. Regret is fine, if we don’t beat ourselves up over it. 

Kumaria says that, ultimately, regret is an emotion and it is never wrong to feel any kind of emotion. They are the gateway to understanding our deep inner worlds as intricately as possible. “Imagine it like puking. Puking is unpleasant, but we need to puke sometimes in order to get toxins out of the system. Similarly, we have a sophisticated mechanism to protect ourselves in the world, and that is our system of emotions. If I didn’t feel anxious in a burning building, I wouldn’t feel the need to get out of it. All emotions have a function.” 

Divya Naik is a Mumbai-based therapist.

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