How to Train Your Brain to Handle Regret


Regret is a human emotion – something most of us will experience throughout our lives. But not all regrets are the same. There are actually two types of regret: the regret you feel when you reflect on actions you took that went wrong, and the regret you feel when you reflect on things you didn’t do. As you get older, the things you didn’t do tend to outweigh regrets about the stupid things you did. For example, you might regret not taking a job that was offered to you or not going back to school.

Here are three things to think about when you mourn the path you didn’t choose:

How green is your lawn?

Often you feel regret when things don’t go well. You’re having a bad week at work and thinking about other things you could be doing right now that wouldn’t have this problem. You check social media and see a friend in another industry get promoted, and it makes you feel bad about your own situation. You argue with a colleague or your boss and think you would have been better off doing something else.

When you feel bad about yourself and your situation, it influences both what you notice in the world and how you interpret things happening around you. You are more likely to see more problems at work when you are already feeling bad about certain difficulties. In addition, you give the worst possible interpretation to situations where you feel bad. If your boss hasn’t emailed you about a project, you assume he’s mad at you, rather than being busy and hasn’t been able to access his inbox yet.

As comforting as it may be to assume that your life would have been rosier if you had only followed a different career path, you should start by taking a clearer look at the path you are on. Are you really dissatisfied with your job or are you just having a hard time? Are you forgetting some of your successes, ignoring some of your great colleagues, or ignoring some of the benefits of your current job? Spend some time thinking about what makes your current career path a good fit.

And remember that it’s easy to think only of the wonderful things that could have happened if you had done something else. But, every job has its challenges. No matter what you do, you will have periods of struggle. Don’t assume that if you had made different choices, you would have avoided any work-related difficulties.

It’s actually not too late

Of course, if you soberly look at your current career and feel stuck in a rut, it’s worth recognizing that you can always take steps to change your circumstances. Even if you have responsibilities that keep you from quitting your job right now, you can start preparing for a different future. Take classes at a local college or university. Chat with friends and colleagues who have jobs you’d like to try and find out what their companies are looking for in new hires.

Taking steps towards a new path can also help you feel better in the short term. It can add to the pain if you also feel like there is nothing you can do about it. Knowing that you have options you can exercise whenever you want can make the present more bearable as you prepare for the future.

Take a mental time trip

One of the sources of regret at work comes from the choices you have made where you have chosen not to pursue an opportunity. Often when given the chance to take on a new role or job, we focus on the skills we don’t yet have. It is natural to assume that someone else will be better qualified for the role and it should be given to that person instead. As a result, we are closing a path that has been opened.

The next time one of these opportunities comes your way, try a different exercise. Project yourself into the future and think back to this moment. Ask yourself if you think you regret not trying something new. If you think this is an opportunity you’ll later regret missing out on, use it as a good reason to accept the offer, even if you don’t feel quite ready to accept it.

This mental time travel ability is usually useful for thinking about potential regrets. Periodically, it’s helpful to imagine yourself nearing the end of your life, thinking back to what you’ve done. Ask yourself if there are things you would regret not doing. If so, add these activities to your plans while you still have a chance.


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