How to Forgive Ourselves for What We Can’t Change

The things we can’t change often come back to haunt us. But our capacity to change the future may come from what we can’t change about the past.

Adoc / Corbis / Getty; The Atlantic

When we regret our past, it can feel like we’re incapable of changing our future. But it may be our past “mistakes” that help us realize there is room to evolve.

In the finale episode of How to Start Over, we explore how regret can be a catalyst of change, what holds us back from self-forgiveness, and how to reconcile our past mistakes—and move forward for good. Conversations with Shai Davidai, an assistant professor at the Columbia Business School, and forgiveness expert Everett Worthington help us identify whether regret hinders our growth or serves as a catalyst of change.

This episode was produced by Rebecca Rashid and is hosted by Olga Khazan. Editing by A.C. Valdez and Claudine Ebeid. Fact-check by Ena Alvarado. Engineering by Matthew Simonson. Special thanks to Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic.

Be part of How to Start Over. Write to us at [email protected] To support this podcast, and get unlimited access to all of The Atlantic’s journalism, become a subscriber.

Music by FLYIN (“Being Nostalgic”), JADED (“Blue Steel”), Mindme (“Anxiety [Instrumental Version]”), and Timothy Infinite (“Rapid Years”).

* Before we jump into our finale episode in this series: a note. Our conversation contains graphic discussions of violence, including assault, discussion of PTSD, and suicide. Discretion is advised.

Olga Khazan: Hi, I’m Olga Khazan, staff writer at The Atlantic.

Rebecca Rashid: And I’m Rebecca Rashid, a producer at The Atlantic.

Khazan: This is How to Start Over. Today, we talk about the origins of regret—what it means, how to get over it, and how we can maybe even learn something from it. We’re going to talk about how regrets can actually be a catalyst of change, rather than the thing that holds us back. I wanted to better understand why we can learn to live with certain choices, but others come back to haunt us. We’ll hear from two experts about how to start over in life by learning from our past choices. And, when regret just won’t release its grip, how we can forgive ourselves and move on.

Khazan: Shai Davidai is an assistant professor at the Columbia Business School. His studies of regret helped me understand which regrets seem to go away quickly, versus which ones can live on in our minds for years.

Shai Davidai: An important thing to remember that psychologists think about is that regret is an emotion that is a time machine. Regret is something about the past that we feel in the present, that is there to guide our future. That’s the function of that emotion. That’s why it evolved.

Davidai: There’s two types of regrets. Sometimes we regret the things we have done; the things we have said. And other times we regret the things we have failed to do or failed to have said. So you can regret saying something offensive, or you may regret not saying something positive.

The most enduring regrets that people have, the ones that kind of stick with us for longer, are those regrets of inaction, those failures to act. These two types of regrets lead to different kinds of emotions.

When people have these regrets of action—when they regret doing something—they’re more likely to feel the hot emotions: anxiety and guilt. And those emotions are a call to action. They lead us to do something. Whereas the other kind of regrets of inaction when we regret not doing something—we feel depressed or we feel sad, but that doesn’t really give us that prompt to step up and change the situation.

Khazan: Huh; okay, interesting. In one of your studies you looked at the difference between the “ideal self” and the “ought self”—can you kind of define what those things mean?

Davidai: Think about all of your goals, all your aspirations: That is your ideal self. Now, that ideal self can change through time, but we all have some sense of—what are our goals? What is the kind of ideal person that I could be?

But we also have our “ought self,” right? That’s the collection of all of the things we feel like we should be doing, the norms we should be following, the rules we should be abiding by.

So we have these tensions, right? We have the person that I feel that I would like to be or that I could be. And then we have the person that I feel like that I “ought” to be—my “should self.” Discrepancies from those two kinds of selves lead to feelings of regret.

Khazan: Let’s say my ideal self is that I’m on TV every night. Everyone in America knows my name, and I’m like a household-name journalist. And then my “ought self” is like, I should really call my mom more; I really don’t call her very often because I get busy. I feel a little bit bad that I put it on the back burner so much. Is that what you’re talking about?

Davidai: Right. Your ideal self’s—the thing that people tend to regret—missed educational opportunities—I could have gone to school or I could have followed my passion at school, but I took the safer route. It could mean missed traveling opportunities. Some people mentioned this “special someone” that they could have married or they could have bonded with and they didn’t.

And then your “ought self,” like you said—they tend to be family related. So I should call my mom more often. But it’s also things that are of a bit of a bigger nature, so not having gone to visit a dying relative before they passed away. In my surveys, [it could be] drug addiction in the past. It could be irresponsible financial behavior.

When we think about regret, we have to think in the short term and long term. In the short term, the “ought regrets”—they are the ones that lead to more intense regret. So if I feel like I should have stepped up and said something in a meeting when someone said something offensive and I didn’t, I feel that that’s a strong regret.

But what typically happens with these strong regrets is because they feel so intense, we end up dealing with them quite quickly. Whereas our “ideal regrets,” because they are not as strongly felt in the beginning—we just kind of put them on the back burner. They simmer and they simmer and they simmer. And then after 20 years, we’re still there.

Khazan: Okay—so knowing that, you tend to deal with these “ought” regrets more quickly when they come up. But you kind of let those “ideal regrets” simmer. Should we just always be doing whatever our biggest, grandest dream is? It becomes hard to differentiate where you should draw the line of I’ll regret this later if I don’t take action.

Davidai: The first point is that we need to remember—and this is something that is almost so obvious, and yet because it’s obvious, we forget it. Regret is a natural emotion that everyone experiences. Just knowing that helps me deal with my regrets in a way that’s more healthy. Because it’s not something about me. It’s not something about my mentality being wrong; it’s that I am going to experience regret.

So your question is, “Should I just go and follow my dreams?” Well, part of me wants to say yes. But another way is asking yourself: Okay, so what have I learned from this regret? What am I regretting that I didn’t do in the past? What can I learn from that moving forward, so whenever the opportunity arises—a big opportunity or a small opportunity—I’ll be there to accept it and embrace it?

For example, you regret that 15 years ago someone said, “Hey, let’s be spontaneous and fly somewhere.” You’re like, “No, I don’t know if that’s responsible.” Well, what if someone now comes up to you and says, “Let’s be spontaneous over the weekend and drive somewhere”? Well, that’s more feasible. If we remember, Okay, that is the regret that I had. Well, I can’t change what I did, but I can change how I will react in the future.

So if someone passed away, we can’t reach out anymore. But that doesn’t mean all is lost. Because now—feeling that regret and feeling the intensity of it—we can take stock of everyone else whom we care deeply about that is still around. And how do we make sure that that doesn’t happen with them?

Khazan: So the key is not to eliminate regret; it’s to process your regrets in a healthy way.

Davidai: Not to come off as Pollyannaish—regret is great! An example that keeps coming up is people regretting having married an abusive partner and having stayed with them for so long. They say: “I shouldn’t have been there.” Like, that’s a big “ought” regret. But what they also say: “But I feel okay about it; because of them, I have my beautiful children.”

So they are dealing with their regrets by seeing the silver lining. I’m not here to judge and say “Your regrets are not real,” but rather “The content of your regret is different, but the process is the same, and we can learn from the process.”

Khazan: But what happens if we just can’t get past our regrets? We keep going over and over something in our heads, but there’s no particular change we can make: Maybe it’s too late, the moment has passed, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

This is where self-forgiveness might come into play. We might just have to accept the things we cannot change. In thinking about self-forgiveness, I was reminded of something I came across a long time ago while researching forgiveness in general. It’s called the REACH method. It’s a system that can help you forgive others—but it could also be applied to yourself, too.

Khazan: Dr. Everett Worthington is a clinical psychologist and an expert on forgiveness. Ev was a professor at the Virginia Commonwealth University for nearly four decades, retiring in 2017. Ev and his students actually created the REACH forgiveness method and other resources to help people forgive themselves. I first interviewed him for a piece in 2015, and though he didn’t remember me, his story was one I’ll never forget.

Khazan: I interviewed you back in 2015. You mentioned that you had your own experience, a very intense and actually tragic experience from your life where you ended up having to forgive yourself for something. I was wondering if you would be comfortable talking about that story today and about how you actually went through the process of forgiving yourself.

Worthington: What happened was, in 1996, my mother was murdered. It was a very brutal murder. It was a home invasion. Apparently a young man, thinking no one was home, broke into her house. But she woke up, and he had a crowbar and ended up bludgeoning her to death. I was able to forgive the young man for doing that. But my brother was the one who discovered my mother’s body. So he was really traumatized. And I think he took a kind of emotional-suppression response to that.

He said, “You know, I am still just having a terrible time with this. I just have these, you know, intrusive thoughts, these images that come back of seeing her body there. I get so depressed and anxious about this.”

I said, “Well, Mike, this sounds like a post-traumatic stress problem. I think if I were you, I would try to get some kind of counseling for this.” When I said, “Mike, I’d get some counseling if I were you,” he said, “I’m not going to any shrink.” I said, “Well, whatever.” And I didn’t bring it up again.

Well, of course, within three months, it turned out Mike committed suicide. He was so upset with the depression and couldn’t get past this PTSD. And so I felt really a lot of self-condemnation, because I could easily look at myself and regret that I did not respond the way that I knew I could respond.

And so I worked through that model, and I had trouble more with the responsibility end of things: How do I make this right? Mike’s dead. I’ve confessed this to God. I feel that God’s forgiven me for my failures—but how do I make this right interpersonally?

Khazan: A lot of your work does deal with spirituality, and you mentioned God a couple of times. I’m wondering: For people who aren’t religious, I think it can be harder to move through some of these steps, because you don’t have an interlocutor. And I’m wondering what advice you have for people who aren’t religious for working through some of these same steps?

Worthington: The only one of those steps that really makes any difference is that first one—about making things right as much as you’re able with what you hold to be sacred. We call this religious spirituality. But then there’s a kind of natural spirituality—where people feel like I’ve gotten out of sorts with nature.

Or there’s a humanistic spirituality, where they feel like I’ve done a crime against humanity;I have disappointed my view of what humans ought to be. And then for some people, there’s just a sense of transcendence that comes with that feeling of awe. We feel like, Well, there’s things that are just bigger than I am. I’ve got to have some perspective on things, because I’m not the center of the universe.

For those people [where] that’s not a very important part of their life, then that’s not really going to cause many problems either if they bypass that step and look at responsibility to people and also to themselves psychologically.

Khazan: There’s this common prompt in therapy to just feel your feelings. I’m wondering whether forgiveness of others or ourselves almost suggests that you shouldn’t always be feeling your feelings. Because you’re trying to remind yourself that you’re being forgiving and that you’ve committed to this forgiveness mindset.

Worthington: I would say it’s more a recognition that all of my experiences are very complex, and that I often have very mixed feelings. Part of wisdom is being able to hold things that are in tension at the same time and have perspective enough to make a decision of which one is most important right now. So, I’m not negating that I’m having negative feelings—but what I’m trying to do is to shift the balance in how much importance I’m going to give the negative feelings versus a more generous, compassionate approach to myself.