© Copyright 1993, Revised 2002, Arlene Harder, MA, MFT



Learn how to move past regrets so you can be fully focused on images of what is and can be, rather than what was or could have been.

Caught In Our Expectations

We all have regrets. They are the things we wish we hadn’t said or done and things we wish we had. We regret we weren’t able to fulfill some of our dreams. When we expected someone would do something and they did not, or when we expected circumstances would turn out differently, we regret it. When illness or accident prevents us from doing what we had our hearts set on accomplishing, regret may seem too limiting a word to express our anger at the unfairness of it all.

Why do some of us spend so much time thinking about our regrets? The reason, I think, is fairly simple. We don’t plan on making as many mistakes as we do and we assume a lot of things will turn out as we expect them to. I say this from very personal experience. In fact, after struggling with guilt and regret when a son developed alcoholism and was homeless for several years, I wrote a book, Letting Go of Our Adult Children: When What We Do Is Never Enough, to help my clients and others deal with the regret of having children who disappoint us in one way of another, whether or not our expectations are realistic.

Most of the time, of course, we are able to put regrets behind us, especially those that are not major disappointments. We look at what we don’t have and usually acknowledge, eventually, that it was better to have loved and lost or tried and failed than never to have loved or tried at all. But sometimes we get stuck. We tell ourselves that we wouldn’t be sick if we hadn’t smoked, if we had eaten better, if we didn’t have so much stress, if we had gone in sooner for a checkup. We assure ourselves that our life would be so much better today — we’d be healthy, wealthy, and wise — if only we hadn’t been so weak, so unwise, so unlucky.

Our minds return again and again to what “might” have been, “could” have been, or “should” have been. We replay the images that connect us to the events we now regret. Rather than getting rid of these images, our constant ruminations only give them fuel to grow ever more persistent.

Fortunately, there is a way out of this dilemma. You see, we can potentially think a thousand things and have available in our mind’s eye a thousand images, but we can only think one thought or hold one image at a time. Consequently, if we are fully focused on images of “what is” and “what can be,” it is impossible to focus at the same time on images of what was or could have been. Therefore, letting go of regrets involves the creation of images for releasing the past and then welcoming the future.

The following is a method many people have used to move fairly quickly from regret to letting go — whether their regret was clearly their own fault, the responsibility of another person who promised something and didn’t follow through, or the result of uncontrollable circumstances, like a flood or other act of God.


Get Ready . . .

Accept that things are the way they are.

You may want to live in San Francisco, but if you haven’t yet made the move, it won’t help to get around your present town if you use a map of the place you would rather be. Acknowledging you are where you are is essential. Even if you’re lost, it helps to admit it.

Practice letting go of something small.

It takes courage to let go of really, really big regrets, like that chunk of money you invested in a failed project. So if you have trouble with letting go, it’s often a good idea to start small and work your way up. In fact, I recommend you think of something right now that is a small-to-moderate sized regret you are pretty sure you are ready to get off your plate. Once you see how the technique works, you just may want to try something larger.

Acknowledge the role you played, though unintentional, in the failure of your dreams.

We’re able to move much more quickly, and permanently, past regrets when we can admit that things didn’t turn out as we expected because of something we did, or failed to do. Only psychopaths have no regrets. They never look back or learn from their behavior. The rest of us can. 

Forgive yourself and others.

I suspect one reason we hold onto regrets is that we can’t allow ourselves to be less than perfect and don’t want others to be imperfect, either. As a recovering

perfectionist, however, I have learned a thing or two about forgiveness. Forgiving ourselves and others releases guilt and energy previously used to beat ourselves up. Forgiving others allows love to flow more easily. Most of all, forgiveness makes us happier people — and happier people aren’t focused on the past.


Get Set . . .

Is there a lesson in there somewhere?

I think it’s particularly important to emphasize this point because it seems to me that there’s a mechanism within the human condition that encourages us to hold onto regrets that we haven’t yet learned from. Certainly that has been true for me. And when I’m able to articulate the lesson within the mess I’ve created, I find it much easier to move on. Not long ago I had a major disappointment when time, effort and money invested in another person was almost a total bust. I’m discovering it’s easier to put this in the past when I remind myself of the numerous lessons that have come my way because of it.

Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned over the years. Think before you speak. Forgive more quickly. Pay your bills on time. Eat less. Exercise more. Prevent your ego from stepping on the rights of others. Accept the reality that you ultimately don’t have any control over the actions of others. Don’t trust everyone. Don’t distrust everyone.

Decide why you want to let go of your regret.

Just as it helps to remember the lesson you need to learn, it helps to reinforce your decision to let go if you can say why you want to put the regret behind you. Here are some examples. “I’m just plain tired of going over and over something I no long can do anything about.” “I could sure use the energy I’m expending on regret in more productive ways.” “I don’t want . . . (a person’s name) . . . to occupy my thoughts much as . . . (he or she) . . . has in the past.”

So the question for you at this moment is, why do you want to release the regret you’ve chosen to let go of?

Choose a symbol or picture that represents the burden of your past.

How do you experience your regret? What image comes to your mind when you ruminate on what was not, but you wish had been? Examples might be a heavy rope that ties you down . . . a huge pile of papers under which you feel buried . . . a calendar with 365 identical pages saying, “She left me!” . . . a gold medal being given to someone else . . . a plane taking off without you . . . the face of a person who offended you . . . the tree that fell on your prized car.

Turn a piece of paper into an object for releasing the past.

You can do this step in your imagination or in reality. After you’ve read to the end of the article, you may know which way can work best for you. In either case, I suggest you choose a paper in a yucky color, one you really don’t like. What if you rather like all colors? At least choose one that isn’t your very favorite. Next, on this paper write the lesson you’ve learned and the reason why you want to let go of your regret. Then draw your symbol or picture.

Now you have an internal image (or a piece of reality, if you are actually doing this) of your lesson, reason, and symbol that can be the vehicle through which you can let go of your regret.


Go !

Plan a ceremony in which you will get rid of the paper.

There are many possibilities. You could row out to the middle of a lake, drop the paper over the side and watch as it floats for a moment and then sinks deep below the surface. You could put the paper into a shredder and watch it cut it into a zillion pieces. How about just flushing it down the toilet or burning it? Then too, you could always get a shovel and bury it! But be careful you don’t turn around and put a marker to let you know where it is. That would make it too easy to dig up again!

Acknowledge your readiness to let go.

As you think about how you will let go of the paper and the regret it represents, I recommend you plan to say something right before doing it. The sentence I generally suggest is, “I am ready to release my regret that . . .” and then complete the sentence. For example, you might say, “I am ready to release my regret that I didn’t treat my friend more kindly.” Or it might be something like, “I am ready to release my regret that my child has not done what I wanted her to do.” You can say this either to yourself (if you might be embarrassed by having someone hear you) or out loud (in which case, you might even shout it).

Say good-bye.

You’re ready, you’re set, and now it’s time to do it! As you take the real or imaginary paper and prepare to get rid of it by whatever means you’ve chosen, first use the sentence that indicates you’re ready to do it and then add a simple “Good-bye regret” . . . “Good-bye dream” . . . “Good-bye expectation.”

Embrace your freedom.

As you release the paper and watch it disappear — taking the image of your regret with it — let yourself fully experience the inner peace and calm that comes from giving up regrets and accepting life exactly as it has turned out to be.


Welcome the Future

Once you forgive yourself and turn away from burdensome regrets of the past, it rather seems to me that now you need to have the optimism of a farmer. In the springtime, when the rich earth is ready, he plows the fields and sows the seeds which hold promise of new life. The seeds will mature just as he hopes IF there are enough gentle rains and warm sunny days.

Just as the farmer doesn’t have control over the conditions needed for his seeds to grow properly, however, you, too, can’t predict if all your plans will come true. Nevertheless, without setting your sights on a future goal, you won’t be able to get there, even if the conditions turn out to be just right.

Therefore, to plant your own seeds of hope, consider what you would like to do with your newly released energy. You might want to move in a whole new direction that would not have been possible when you clung to regrets of the past. Or you may choose to simply make time each day to appreciate what you have right now.

In any case, what could be your goal, the seed you can plant for the future, no matter how long that future may be or whether conditions will be perfect for growing your seed into a dream?

When you know what that goal will be, reinforce your turn from the past to the future with a sentence or two. Just as you used words to help you bury, burn, tear up, flush, or in some other way get rid of the past, there are words you can use to help welcome the future. And continuing with the farming metaphor, we might say the sentences are the fertilizer that can make the seed of hope grow.

The following are examples of words that can strengthen your resolve to change hope into reality.

“I look forward to spending less energy feeling guilty about the past.”. . . “I welcome the opportunity of accepting my child just as she is and not as I expected her to be.” . . . “I want to use what I have learned from my mistakes to make wise decisions.” . . . “I intend to use whatever talents, energy and life I am given to make a difference in the lives of others.” . . . “I want to write that book I’ve always said I would write.” . . . “I want to learn how to draw.”


A New and Powerful Piece of Paper

My final suggestion in the process of letting go of regrets involves another piece of paper. This one will be in a color you like very much, for on it you will write what you intend to do. You might even want to add a symbol or picture that represents your goal. Then put that paper where you will see it every day. Let it remind you that you have chosen to live a life without regret.

By the way, don’t worry if your old regret pops up from time to time. Since you’ve given so much thought in the past to your regrets, different places in your brain have stored those images. That’s why seemingly unrelated thoughts can trigger old images. What you can now do when the images are brought to mind, therefore, is to replace those old ones with the new ones you created when going through this process. For really huge regrets, you may need to repeat the process several times. Each time you’ll be laying down new, more positive images to replace the old, negative images.

Keep your new paper where you can see it and always remember this . . .

While holding in your mind a powerful image of what the future COULD be, you cannot also — at that same moment — hold images of what MIGHT have been!


© Copyright 1993, Revised 2002, Arlene Harder, MA, MFT