Regret is a common and painful experience. This is especially true for our therapy clients. Regret is also a common part of shame. Many clients ruminate endlessly about regrets – things they wish they did but didn’t or things they didn’t do that they wish they had. People who have experienced trauma often express regrets about how they acted during the traumatic event or afterwards.
One form this can take is moral injury – a profound experience in which you feel you have deeply violated your own moral guidelines. A moral injury often results in experiencing excruciating regret, guilt and shame over actions that can never be undone.
How Can We as Therapists Best Approach Regret?
Most of us know that it’s important to talk about these experiences, rather than keeping them tucked away. But how do we do this in the most effective way?
New research from Berkeley University suggests that practicing self-compassion while approaching and discussing regrets may be a key factor in learning from past regrets, rather than getting stuck in them.
If you’ve been reading this blog, you know that self-compassion tends to be very adaptive, leading people to improve themselves, take responsibility for their mistakes and confront challenges head on. This is because self-compassion is about extending sympathy towards our failures, realizing that everyone (ourselves included) makes mistakes, and noticing these mistakes without getting swept away by them.
Rather than letting mistakes get us down or hold us back, self-compassion allows us to be a friend to ourselves and help us learn from the inevitable mistakes that are part of life.
Self-Compassion vs. Self-Esteem
People may conflate self-esteem with self-compassion. Yet, self-esteem encourages people to validate their strengths, without necessarily paying any mind to weaknesses or shortcomings. So, unlike self-compassion, self-esteem may encourage people to shy away from painful, yet important, learning opportunities, such as regret.
The researchers began their exploration of regret by gathering over 200 blog posts from a website in which people anonymously shared experiences of regret. The instructions on the main page of the site read “What’s the biggest regret of your life? What one thing would you change if you had a second chance?” When reading these entries, the researchers paid close attention to how much self-compassion people expressed (e.g. “This person was consumed by feelings of inadequacy from his or her regret”), how much self-esteem they expressed, and how much they grew after the experience.
As the researchers expected, higher levels of self-compassion in these blog posts corresponded with more personal growth. Neither self-esteem nor negative emotions could explain the relationship between self-compassion and personal growth, suggesting that there was something unique about self-compassion that may have facilitated personal growth.
In a second study, the researchers tested whether peoples’ habitual tendency to practice self-compassion predicted how much they grew from experiences of regret. Half of the participants wrote about an experience of regretting an action (i.e. things that they did but wish they hadn’t), while the other half wrote about an experience of regretting inaction (i.e. things that they did but wish they had).
The researchers prompted participants to reflect upon this experience with self-compassion (i.e. having a compassionate and understanding perspective) or with self-esteem (i.e. validating only positive qualities). As a control, a third group of participants were not prompted to reflect on this experience, but rather to discuss a positive hobby.
Compared to participants in the self-esteem and control condition, those in the self-compassion condition reported a greater desire to forgive themselves, accept the situation, and improve themselves following the experience of regret. Statistical analyses revealed that self-compassion led to personal improvement, in part, through promoting an acceptance of the situation.
Together, this research suggest that self-compassion may help people confront and accept, rather than avoid, their experiences of regret. In staying in contact with experiences of regret, self-compassion may pave the way towards self-improvement, allowing people to learn and grow from their challenging experiences. In thinking about your clients, how might you use self-compassion to help them grow from their mistakes and regrets?
Written by: Christina Chwyl and Jason Luoma, Ph.D.