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How Do You Stop Living with Regrets

February 18, 2022

Thoughts fuel emotions. If you don’t like what you’re feeling, step back and examine what you’re thinking. Pain is inevitable, but you’ll suffer a lot less if you disengage from your thoughts.

-Buddha

Releasing Regrets

In all cultures humans universally experience eight distinct emotions: love, happiness, sadness, fear, anger, disgust, surprise, and contempt and within those there are subcategories branching out to more specific emotions such as despair, hope, anguish, regret. There is a science behind how our thoughts trigger synapses in our brain to create our feelings in the moment. Our brain is constantly receiving information from our environment through our senses. Instead of experiencing the world objectively, we perceive the world subjectively based on our memories from our life lived experiences. This is why we all have different viewpoints. 

a person with his mind of emotions

Many have a preconceived notion that to be ‘happy’ we must never have negative feelings. Ironically, trying to avoid negative feelings only amplifies them. We are being negative about the negative, which creates a loop of negativity. We have these negative emotions for a reason. Often we can learn and grow from them and help ourselves and others. Actually if we just accept them and take what we can from them they will eventually disappear if we let them go.

Negative feelings can be detrimental to us though, when we linger in those thoughts of depression/sadness/regret for an extended period and continuously bring up those repetitive thoughts. This can cause chronic stress, ‘upsetting the body’s hormonal balance.’ This leads to the need to take medications to alter the chemical reactions in our brain. 

woman depressed with sad tears in hair

Self-help books, religions, philosophers have expressed for centuries that we must be kind to ourselves and others, don’t judge, compare etc. We have rules that we were told to follow, but do we know the reasoning behind them, other than wanting to be a good person? The physical chemistry of our brain reflects the importance of this advice.  Let’s compare research results of how our bodies and minds react to our thoughts. 

Effects of Positive Thinking

  • Increases mental productivity (attention, awareness, memory)
  • Cortisol decreases when we think happy thoughts or feel joy
  • The brain creates serotonin in response to our positive emotions. When serotonin levels are normal, one feels happy, calm, less anxious, more focused, and emotionally stable.
  • Positive emotions impact the brain’s prefrontal cortex – located in the front of the brain. When the prefrontal cortex is activated, there is an increase in activity and zeal. 
  • The increase in positivity establishes heightened mental reactions such as creative thinking, intellectual adaptability, and an increase in the brain’s capacity to process information.
  • Our attention span is increased
  • We think in terms of “we” instead of “me.

Negative thinking has been shown to create the opposite effects:

  • A decrease in the speed our brain processes information
  • Finding solutions becomes difficult
  • Creative thinking is impaired
  • Activity in the cerebellum is decreased – positive feelings are impaired
  • Mood, memory, and impulse control are affected
  • Attention span is decreased
  • We become less empathetic towards others

Regret is a complex negative emotion that stems from guilt and disappointment and involves lingering and repetitive thoughts and emotions. Children are taught right from wrong and when other children are praised for good behavior, regret automatically kicks in (oh man I shouldn’t have done that). While adults fixate on the past regretting wrong decisions and missed opportunities e.g. (I should have bought that, done that, I would have had more by now or been happier, relationship decisions and on and on). The feeling of regret, wishing you can undo an action and do something differently, happens to all of us. 

BUT how can I live my life with acceptance and confidence when I have so many regrets? I do not deserve happiness. Or the position that I do deserve happiness, why did this happen to me? It is someone else’s fault. As you get lost in these minds of regret it affects you and others around you. 

Flowers come out of a brain

Some tips that have helped me:

  1. We all make mistakes; nobody is perfect and not one mistake is worse than another. We perceive ours to be grandiose and unforgivable. These are experiences that shape you as a person and help shape your future. Spin any negative into a positive, change those synapses by putting in that conscious effort. No matter how terrible our reason for regret there is usually a positive side that we cannot see.
  1. LET IT GO. There are actions that cannot be undone. Do not continue to blame/ point the finger leading to a cycle of harm. Most importantly self-reflect, be aware of the faults and forgive. Reflect on yourself and your decision making and forgive yourself because you didn’t know then what you know now. As they say “hindsight is 20/20.”
  1. Be consciously aware that we remember what we want to remember, so SEPARATE the real from false. We store thousands of thoughts in our mind, which are pictures of events that have happened, emotions linked to those events/actions. These thoughts in my mind are not real, they no longer apply to the reality of the present, they are delusions. Confront the self who regrets. At the time based on your knowledge you made the decision or action to the best of your abilities.
  1. Live in the here and now, focusing on what is happening in the moment. This moment is all you have. If we remain in the past we will only be creating more regrets for the future for not being present now. We should not sacrifice the real moment of now that we can take positive action in  for past moments that we can never change. We should live each day to our fullest capacity. 
  1. Don’t try to do it by yourself. Think about how many self help books you might have read. Have they helped? Just from 2014 to 2019 the number of self help book titles has almost tripled from 30,897 to 85,253 quite a number when you think that the first one in the US was published in 1859.  Have people gotten so much happier since 1859 because of all these books or in the 5 years that the number of these books almost tripled? 

The problem with such books is that it is not enough to tell you what to do or how to feel or think. Unless you eliminate the roots of those feelings and actions just hearing that you should think or act differently doesn’t help no matter how cleverly it is explained. I know from my own experience, I suffered from deep regret. Without looking inward through meditation and the help of meditation guides it would have been almost impossible to truly overcome. Through meditation I could clearly see and face the causes and effects of my actions that lead to the regret in the first place. Gradually my regret turned into determination to eliminate those causes. This was the positive side of pain. It opened new doors for me and a new life of helping others. When we can help others our own pain almost magically disappears.

  1. Be patient with yourself. Releasing regret and any other emotional pain takes some time. The important thing is to do something about it. Don’t just sit and wallow in it, take action. You are important to the world and believe it or not your pain makes you more important. There are many others with the same feelings so learn how to overcome it in yourself so you can help others. Even if you think you’re not good enough to help anyone, you will be surprised how much any effort is appreciated and you may find qualities in yourself that you never knew you had.

I really want to encourage everyone to take the journey within themselves and change the fundamental roots of where their emotions, thoughts and actions come from. Through meditation you can eliminate all the things you accumulated in your mind, you will find that there is a you in there that you never knew. A you that can be happy regardless of conditions and see the world with joy, gratitude and acceptance.

Happy woman smiling
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