No matter how careful you are to avoid them, you'll probably accumulate a few regrets in your life. Whether they're little or large, these painful memories of what could have been can haunt you, making it harder to enjoy present pleasures and undermining your confidence in your decision making.
But what's done is done. Short of building a time machine and going back to fix your errors, is there anything you can do to get over regret and move forward with a healthier attitude?
Yes, says recent research which compared different mental strategies for recovering from life missteps. One way of thinking about regrets, it turns out, helps us heal faster.
Compassion beats boosterism
To figure out how best to handle life's shoulda-coulda-wouldas, the research team asked study volunteers to try one of three interventions. A control group did nothing special, while one group was prompted to write out what a compassionate and understanding friend might say about their regret. A final group was asked to write about their own strengths and positive qualities.
You might think that talking up your good points was the fastest way to get over regret, but the results suggested otherwise. Forgiving yourself your faults and weaknesses seems to work better than telling yourself you don't have many of them to start with.
"The results showed it was the people who wrote self-compassionately who felt more self-forgiveness, personal improvement and self-acceptance," reports PsyBlog. "It turned out that accepting your flaws is better than trying to boost yourself up by focusing on positive qualities."
"Not only does [self-compassion] better allow us to confront our regrets, it also enables us to see them in their true light. After all, we are all only human," the post reminds readers.
It's an interesting finding that dovetails with earlier research showing that self-compassion -- essentially being nice to yourself and forgiving yourself your mistakes -- is also an effective way to get over a more specific form of regret, namely the guilt that comes after procrastination.
So next time you're mentally beating yourself up for some significant life misstep, spare a thought for this study. Rather than ruminating on your weaknesses or talking up your strengths, your best bet is probably to be your own good friend and simply accept your flawed human nature, forgiving yourself your errors.