How to Handle Regrets in Later Life

As we get older we carry regrets, shame and remorse about things we've done and things we've failed to do. You might think you are the only person with a secret stash of shame about past actions but take comfort in knowing everyone has done things they regret.

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In the journey of life we have all made mistakes and hurt people mostly out of immaturity and selfishness in pursuing our own needs or acting out of painful emotions and unformed values. Mistakes and bad choices usually centre around the three biggies of life: relationships, career/finances and health/lifestyle.

You can regret and feel ashamed about past sexual experiences and relationship heartaches, past financial mistakes and misguided career choices and bad habits and unhealthy eating which has led to illness. Maybe you regret an accident that spun on a split second decision.

You can also regret what you failed to achieve such as having children or wishing for more children; the failure to have a happy marriage, be successful, rich or famous or fulfill childhood dreams to develop a talent.

You can torment yourself by mulling over past regrets and wallowing in shame and self-loathing but it is a completely futile exercise because no amount of wallowing can change the past.

And such anguish is damaging to yourself and those around you. You cannot be your best in the present if you are mentally and emotionally beating yourself up for the past and feeling guilty and ashamed with family and friends.

Various schools of psychology offer three different coping strategies for dealing with the past. When you use all three together, they become a potent force in overcoming regrets and allowing you to embrace resilience, renewal and redemption.

The first coping strategy is emotional release. It is essential not to repress but rather to express painful feelings and get them out of your system and process hurts, disappointments and grief. Experience fully your grief and remorse over your losses and the hurt you caused others. Crying is healing and so is journaling.

Most people need help in processing painful emotions from people who are gifted with empathy, understanding and compassion. One to one counselling or group therapy is a way to healing and growth. When seeking professional help, be discerning in choosing a counsellor or a support group.

The second coping strategy is reframing. After you have expressed your feelings, it is essential to reflect rationally on the trauma or mistake and think it through from fresh perspectives. View yourself with understanding and compassion and choose to forgive yourself; accept a pardon for your mistake and stop the self-punishment.

Use mental disciple to accept that it has happened and that no amount of wishing will change it. Stop tormenting yourself by churning over the painful event. Choose to forget it. Make a conscious choice to let go of regret and shame.

See the positive side of the trauma or mistake. What good has come out of it? Funny how good can come from the worst situations. Consider what you have learned from this pain and how you have grown and deepened and how others how benefited too. Be grateful for grace.

Remind yourself of all the good things you have done in your life that outnumber and overshadow the bad.

Counselling or a support group can help with reframing as you receive input from caring, trustworthy people who can focus on the positive and show you forgiveness, acceptance and compassion.

The third coping strategy is to take action or change your behaviour. What can you DO to make amends for the wrongs you did in the past? Can you make it up to people you have hurt? Can you say sorry and reconcile?

Now you are older and wiser, show love to your family and friends every day. Share the joy of the present and build happy memories for the future.

Can you help others in some way? Can you help the younger generation avoid the mistakes you made or help other adults deal with similar traumas, grief and mistakes?

The opposite of feeling shame is feeling good about yourself. How can you be a better person and make a contribution to a better, kinder world? Find yourself a worthy cause and use your time to make yourself and others happy in the present rather than waste your time wallowing in the past.

Diane Priestley

Engaging storyteller, Prolific Journalist, Empowering People Matters

Hello Psychologies Tribe, Let me introduce myself! I'm an experienced journalist with a career spanning more than 30 years writing for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Australia and the UK. I write about relationships, health and humanitarian issues. I'm a qualified Counsellor and Workshop Facilitator. I moved from Australia to the UK in 2009 and now live near the beach in Folkestone, Kent and part of the year in Kenya doing community work.


Go to the profile of Keith Clarke
almost 7 years ago
Go to the profile of Keith Clarke
almost 7 years ago
Good article. Re framing is a very powerful tool. I would also add acceptance and forgiveness if you are feeling any regrets. It is important to be compassionate when dealing with your younger self. Whatever decisions that were made were made with the best intentions and with the knowledge and understanding you had at that time. I find it useful if you tailor your self talk around regrets to that of an adult child relationship. Would you be likely to angrily berate a child for a past mistake, or to lovingly put your arm around them, tell them that it is OK and help them learn from the lesson? Once you can learn to be compassionate with yourself, you can then accept and forgive. This makes the acts of letting go, reframing, and taking action a lot easier.
Go to the profile of Diane Priestley
almost 7 years ago
Hi Keith, You are so right. The only way we can understand and forgive ourselves for past mistakes is to view our younger self with the compassion and understanding of the Nurturing Parent, not with the judgement and condemnation of the Critical Parent. This approach has worked for me in therapy and I am grateful to view my young self this way. It was the only way I could understand and forgive what now seems like crazy and reckless behaviour. I have finally put down a heavy burden of shame and regret.
Go to the profile of Frank Ronaldo
almost 5 years ago
This is very interesting and useful article which I found when searching for regret for past life. I have a past life that I regret so much. The first strategy, could you please more elaborate. A systematic way of getting things out from your mind. Thanks
Go to the profile of Diane Priestley
almost 5 years ago
Hi Ranga, I'n glad this article was helpful and thanks for leaving a comment and question. I am sorry to know you are suffering from the burden of regrets. As mentioned, the first strategy is emotional release and finding a supportive counsellor to help process your feelings and thinking. Working through the issues should guide you to a place of compassion and forgiveness for yourself and others who have hurt you. Emotional healing from trauma is as necessary as physical healing from injury. I hope you will be able to then reframe your experiences to recognise the positives, the growth and your personal strengths and wisdom that have come from your past pain.
Go to the profile of Dan Cook
almost 5 years ago
Thanks Diane, It was helpful to find your article after feeling the weight of a past action. I appreciated hearing that letting the feelings out as listed first. Dan
Go to the profile of Sandeep Swami
over 4 years ago

but in our religious book like Ramayan and others we always teach that if we commit any type of sin in our live we should regate for a longer period of time. So that we don't commit it again and don't hurt to others. What aboy that?