Overcoming Regret

These 5 steps can help you walk beyond your past mistakes
By Cheryl Smith
Cheryl Smith
Cheryl Smith
September 10, 2021 Updated: September 10, 2021

Minimalism isn’t just about letting go of excess possessions and the things we no longer use or enjoy. It is a whole-person release of everything that diminishes our well-being. There are things that complicate our lives far more than the clutter we can see—things like the heavy burden of regret.

Regret can anchor us in the past, robbing us of the present. It can interject itself into the happiest of moments, clouding over our sense of peace.

If we’ve lived, we’ve done at least a few things we wish we hadn’t or failed to do some things we wish we had. Some of the choices we wish we could change only had an internal effect on us—they didn’t really impact anyone else. Then there are the more complicated regrets that stem from seeds we have sown that grew pain and heartache in others.

Eighteen years ago, I stood by the bedside of my dying father. Six years ago, I repeated the heart-wrenching scene in a different ICU room by my mother as her beautiful life slipped away. Both of my parents struggled much of their lives with a shadow of regret over their own mistakes and failures. Watching both of them draw their final breaths gave me a sense of clarity about the complete futility of regret. Here are five lessons I wish my dear parents had learned before their lives were over.

1. Accept the reality of the thing you regret.

The mistakes are real. They happened, and history cannot be rewritten. Trying to recuse ourselves from responsibility will only mask the wrongdoing, a futile bandaid. Embracing reality and acknowledging the truth is the first step toward releasing regret.

2. Forgive yourself.

Show yourself the same kind of mercy you would hope others extend to you when you’ve wronged them. Stop beating yourself up for doing something you can’t undo. If you could go back to the moment before it happened, you would. Open your heart to grace. Relieve yourself of the burden of blame. Forgiving yourself won’t negate the thing you regret, but it will free you from its grip.

3. Make amends.

If the thing you regret has wounded another, apologize with sincerity and without excuse. Do what you reasonably can to mend your actions without crossing into overcompensation. I say “reasonably” because there are those who will demand more of you than is required, especially if they’re hurt and want to make you pay for the wrongdoing. This can get tricky because regret can cloud what seems reasonable. Your own sense of peace is a reliable guide to know when you’ve done enough.

4. Forget what is behind you.

Leave the past where it happened. Don’t keep talking about your failures and mistakes. The more you give them voice, the larger they will appear. Release anything that reminds you of the regrettable action. I am deeply remorseful over a life decision my husband and I made that wounded the spirit of our son. Is there anything harder to deal with than a parenting regret? I have wished a thousand times that we had made a different choice, but what’s done is done. Letting go of everything tangible that brings back memories of that time has helped us on our journey to healing. Reliving regrettable actions only perpetuates the misery. Today is too precious to waste on “if onlys.”

5. Do the opposite of what you regret.

We can’t change the past, but we can change our lives going forward. Regret is a painful, albeit effective teacher. Learn from it. We will continue to make mistakes as long as we live, but taking note of what regret has taught us can keep us from repeating actions we will be sorry for in the future. Replace regretful contemplation with positive action. When wishing you had done things differently overwhelms your thinking, get proactive. Channel your thoughts into what is uplifting. Read something that inspires you. Do something nice for someone. Reach out with a benevolent hand. Be kind to everyone you meet. Smile.

We all wish we had done things differently at some point, but it’s amazing how doing something positive, productive, and constructive can relieve that burden.

Cheryl Smith blogs at Biblical Minimalism.com. Her family sold their home, released 90 percent of their physical possessions, got out of debt, and now share their story and their Christian faith on their blog. She is the author of the books, “Biblical Minimalism” and “Homespun Devotions: Volume One.”

Cheryl Smith