Facing Regret

I was cleaning out my pantry this weekend. Literally every time you opened the door, something fell out — seriously, so embarrassing! As I began to reorganize the items, I realized pretty quickly that 1/3 to 1/2 of what was in our pantry was actually expired. As I piled up the items to be recycled and thrown away, I was filled with regret: for the food that was never made, the money we wasted, the fruitless labor that went into making the items I was so carelessly discarding, and the many people who go hungry every day across the world.

Regret can be paralyzing. The shame of doing something — or not doing something — can overwhelm, frustrate, and immobilize us.

As you turn the page into this new year and you’ve reflected on where you are and where you’d like to be, I’m guessing you may be bumping up against some regret as well. It could be over something relatively small — like wasted food in your pantry — or something much bigger — like a raise you never asked for, overspending during the holidays, not saving more for retirement, or piles of education debt. Either way, it’s easy to get stuck in the land of “if only …” and it’s easy to let your regret undermine your self-confidence. But part of being human is making mistakes and learning from them.

If you’re stuck in regret — financial or otherwise — here are some ways to escape the cycle and learn from your mistake:

1.     Dig into your “why:” Instead of running from the emotion, take a few minutes to dive into your regret. What exactly do you regret and why? Do you regret this because of external pressures, or because your actions didn’t reflect your values?

Tip: Diving into our emotions can be tough. Set a time limit for yourself of 10 minutes to give your regret your undivided attention. Make a list or journal to process your thoughts. Or, use one of my favorite methods: Talk it out to yourself while you’re driving. If those emotions still feel overwhelming even after 10 minutes of thoughtful processing, follow the advice of my counselor: Tell your emotions that “you have a meeting to go to” and dive into a new task.

2.     Can anything else be fixed: After 10 minutes of processing, ask yourself: Is there anything I can do to make this situation better? If so, outline the next steps you’ll need to take. There are some situations that simply can’t be fixed; if that’s yours, don’t dwell too much on this step. Accept it and move forward — there’s no need to dig yourself a bigger hole of guilt. This isn’t a time to get caught up in “woulda, coulda, shoulda.”

Tip: If you’re regretting debt you’ve racked up — whether it’s credit cards or student loans — take the time to look at your repayment options. Using an income-based repayment program or asking your credit card company to lower your interest rate won’t automatically get you out of debt, but it can make the repayment process a lot easier.

3.     What did you learn: Now that you’ve delved into the situation and done what you could to remedy it, it’s time to take a step back and reflect. Did you find out something about your habits, or your goals? I think every regret is an opportunity to learn more about ourselves, others, and our life with money.

Tip: Sometimes what you find out will surprise you. When my husband and I tried and failed to adopt a dog, one of our biggest learnings was that we don’t desire to be a traditional family. We want to be a family of two who places a priority on adventure and travel. Don’t be afraid to buck the system. What you learn about yourself doesn’t have to match the norm. In fact, our regrets can often be our greatest teachers about how we want to forge our own path into the future.

4.     What will you do next time: Some regrets come from a one-time action, so there may not be anything you can change for next time. But a lot of regrets are habitual. If that’s the case, a great way to get rid of a bad habit is to replace it with a good one. When you end up in this situation next time, what will you do? Make a concrete plan. For example, if you regret the times you’ve overspent while you’re out shopping, resolve to only take cash with you so you don’t have a chance to overspend. To address my regret, I’m going to make my grocery list in the kitchen and take the time to see if we have an item before ordering another one.

Tip: Changing a long-held habit can be really challenging. Be patient with yourself as you work through this process. One of the best ways to make a change is to go back to your “why.” Write out a note to yourself, or find an image that describes how this regret made you feel and gives you a sense of the consequences. Tuck this into your wallet or put it as the background on your phone so you can refer back to it when temptation strikes.

Don’t spend your new year dwelling in regret. Take the time to reflect, put safeguards in place, and make a change. Reading this article is a great first step toward that goal.