Where do you put your regrets?

Sometimes we define ourselves by our mistakes and hold onto them.

Sometimes we let our regrets become an excuse or barrier to keep us from moving forward.

As a life story writing guide, I hear women express shame about parts of their lives—shame based on their past mistakes.

Living with shame is detrimental to our health and well-being. That may be obvious, but the question lingers: Where are we supposed to put our regrets?

What to do next?

One of my greatest regrets is that I didn’t take my education more seriously. I went to college more concerned about getting my “MRS” than my BA or BS, taking the “easy” route when choosing classes instead of exploring options that could challenge and engage me. It may sound like a small thing —I’m fortunate to have had the opportunity to earn a college degree, of course—but the fact remains that it’s a regret that looms large for me when I hear some of my friends talk about how stimulated they were by their classes. When I think of my college experience, I get a tightness in my chest and feel sad for my younger self.

All the same, not making the most of my college experience, and feeling regret about it, proved to be a motivating force in my life going forward. For example, I kicked butt in graduate school, and ever since I’ve been hyper-aware not to let learning and growth experiences slip by me without appreciating and enjoying them. This is true today, as I build my business. Even on the days when I question myself or overwhelm creeps in, I make sure to take time to appreciate where I am in this moment. Especially, to appreciate all the amazing women across the globe Journey to Legacy has brought into my life.

And there you have the beautiful secret about regret: It can be a powerfully positive influence on future behavior.

Today I’d like to convince you to step into your regrets, to own them, and to allow them to help guide you into your wiser future self. 

First, a definition. Regret is the emotion we experience when we look back on an action and feel we should or could have done something differently. (It’s different from guilt—we tend to feel guilty about actions we knew at the time were wrong.) 

It’s impossible to eradicate a feeling from our lives altogether, and we shouldn’t even strive for a zero-regrets life. If you have no regrets, that means you’re thrilled with every choice you’ve made, which probably means you aren’t taking any chances, which can also stunt your personal growth. Healing comes not from never having regrets, but from what we do with the awareness of our regrets.

Neal Roese, a professor of marketing at the Kellogg School of Management, has conducted several studies on regret. His work demonstrates what I’ve experienced: The human brain recognizes regret and uses it as a positive influence on future behavior. 

Future benefits.

In one study, Roese found that people recognize regret as valuable—they use it consciously. Students in the study responded that it helped them make future decisions; more than other “negative emotions,” regret helped them make sense of the world, avoid future behaviors, gain insight, achieve social harmony, and improve their approach.

In which aspects of life are your regrets rooted? 

Roese asked that question and, through research, found that people of all ages and geographies list the following as the top reasons for regret in their lives: 

  • education (this was #1—guess I’m not unique!)
  • career
  • romance
  • parenting
  • the self
  • leisure

I was intrigued to learn that culture has an influence on regret. In places like the United States, with lots of opportunities and freedom, people experience more regret. In cultures where people have less control over decision-making, such as cultures where arranged marriages are the norm, people have fewer regrets because they have fewer choices. 

Indeed, if I’d never had the opportunity to earn a college degree, I would have one less regret. It’s a mixed bag: Choices may breed more regrets, but it is an indicator of freedom. Realizing that fact alone makes me feel more at peace about not having enjoyed college as much as I could have. 

So, are you getting closer to figuring out where to put your feelings? 

How to turn a moment of regret into something inspirational.

Think about how you felt when I first asked, Where do you put your regrets?

Did you resist because you didn’t want to feel the uncomfortable feelings, or did you react with some level of curiosity? If you resisted, it may be a sign that you’re missing an opportunity to learn from your past.

Here are a few writing prompts that will help you gain insights from your regrets. Take 15 minutes to do this writing exercise today! I promise it will give you inspiration for how to live better tomorrow and onward.

  1. I regret (a choice I made or an action I took) . . . 
  1. The story I told myself when I made this choice was that I . . . 
  1. When are some other times when I have told myself a similar story?
  1. In what ways am I having a similar regret or telling myself the same story today?
  1. What is a more self-supporting story I could tell myself?
  1. What’s a more proactive step I could take to avoid future regrets of this type?
  1. What does my future without this regret look like?

It’s never too late to learn from the past, and each regret is a new opportunity for just that. Analyzing our regrets often illuminates destructive behaviors we’re still engaging in. It can be a tough lesson, but a productive one. I know it has helped me.

I’d love to know how the writing exercise felt for you. Please reach out and let me know!

You can learn more about Professor Roese HERE.