Regret — how to use it to your advantage.

“Of all the words of mice and men, the saddest are, “It might have been.”
Kurt Vonnegut

Regret is perhaps one of the most debilitating of our emotions.

It can eat us alive and occupy all of our brain space, rendering it difficult for us to fully focus on anything else for hours and sometimes days on end.

This is especially true when there’s nothing we can do to undo what’s been done (or not done as is often the case).

Perhaps we wanted to say ‘hi’ to that hot girl or guy but didn’t. We’ll probably never cross paths again.

Perhaps we wanted to pitch an investor we saw at the airport lounge but didn’t. We might never have that unique opportunity again.

Perhaps we said some things we shouldn’t have to someone we value, and our relationship might now be in disrepair.

Using regret as fuel might not be enough

Now, you’ve probably already heard people say that you should use that much-maligned feeling of regret as fuel.

You don't want to feel that debilitating feeling again, do you?

So next time you see that hot person, investor, and so forth, you will act differently.

And this works…to a degree.

I’ve used it with great effect many times, but sometimes it falls short.

Sometimes I repeat the same mistakes in business and in life.

When we look back at a moment, we’re looking back with a much clearer and rational mind.

“How could I have been so dumb/weak/negative/stupid?” we might ask ourselves.

But here’s the thing we’re forgetting.

A whole bunch of environmental, physical, and psychological factors were cranked up to 11 in the heat of the moment.

And while we might think we’ll do differently next time, when those factors come back we might simply repeat said patterns.

For example, perhaps you thought about introducing yourself to that hot girl or guy, but here’s what happened.

Physical: Your palms started to sweat, and your heart raced.

Your survival mechanism kicked in.

Psychological: Your inner monolog set in.

Suddenly, you were telling yourself that you’re:

  • out of their league
  • too old
  • not good enough
  • not sure what to say
  • uncomfortable approaching them in front of their friends
  • not comfortable facing rejection

Environmental: It was hot, and noisy, and there were lots of other people around making us feel awkward.

So what do you do?

You start rationalizing why you shouldn’t say hi, and instead walk away, only for dreaded regret to kick in moments later, ruining the rest of your day.

So while it’s easy to say ‘use regret as fuel’, you need to be ready for the environmental, psychological, and physical factors that underpin why it is you did or did not do the thing you regretted.

Combating the psychological

Perhaps next time you will remind yourself, with evidence based on past experience why you are good enough, know what to say (because you’ve prepared), and that you’re comfortable facing rejection.

By having an arsenal of life experiences to reflect on in such moments (such as all the attractive people you’ve dated, or the times you’ve successfully introduced yourself to someone and gotten their number, or how awesome you are as a person and that no amount of rejection will make you think otherwise about yourself) you can build confidence and courage in the moment.

Combating the physical

Long breaths. Breathe in for 4 seconds and out for 6 seconds, activating your rest and digest or parasympathetic nervous system. This will lower your heart rate and breathing, help you get those sweaty palms under control, and operate at your best.

Combating the environmental

Environmental factors might not be to your liking, but remain yourself that life isn’t a game of perfect.

We’re not always presented with the perfect circumstances.

In fact, more often than not circumstances are imperfect.

Use operating in such environments to your advantage — because most people won’t.

What’s the worst that could happen?

Reminds yourself, again and again, whats the worst that could happen, and am I okay with that?

Chances are you’ll be completely fine with it.

You get rejected by the guy/girl, investor, sales prospect, and so on?

So what?

It doesn’t make you any less than.

In fact, it makes you stronger and better for having had a crack.

You will probably be high off the fact that you got out of your comfort zone, and unlike regret, will quickly forget about the interaction.

Rejection is orders of magnitude better than regret.

If you fail, at least you will have failed living true to yourself and who you want to be. You failed showing yourself love and being confident in your skin.

You wouldn’t have failed telling yourself you weren’t good enough.

As José Saramago put it “If I’m sincere today, what does it matter if I regret it tomorrow?

So whatever opportunities present themselves in your life:

  • breathe
  • remember that rejection is better than regret
  • remind yourself how you’re awesome
  • tell yourself that the worst that could happen is not that bad at all

…and go for it!