Regretful girlRegret is a negative emotion that occurs when a person believes his or her past actions or behaviors, if changed, may have achieved a better outcome. Regret is often closely associated with feelings of guilt and shame. We often express the emotion of regret to others in the form of an apology.

What Is Regret?

The emotion of regret can be broken down into two components:

  • A negative emotional state
  • Cognitive construction of an alternative behavior or decision

Even if the alternative decision or behavior was highly improbable or impossible, it can cause the person experiencing regret to apply a degree of self-blame.

Regret may be characterized by negativity about the past in general, or about a particular incident in the past. For example, a person might feel badly about the way he or she has spent his or her life and be plagued by regret. Alternatively, the person might just feel badly about a particular incident—such as yelling at his or her mother the last time he or she saw her—and feel regret about it.

Regret tends to be a long-lasting emotion, and people might say that they are plagued by feelings of regret that they cannot eliminate. However, regret can also be a short-lived feeling. For example, a child might regret tripping his or her sister and then quickly move past these feelings. The fact that regret is associated with the past, though, can make it particularly difficult to process because the actions that led to the regret cannot be changed.

Feelings of regret are common themes for coming-of-age stories as well as stories in which people take stock of their lives. A character in a movie, for example, might suffer from negative feelings about the way he or she spent his or her life.

How Regret Can Be Helpful

Regret can be a beneficial by helping the person experiencing it gain insight and improve future decision-making skills. Research from the last two decades (2007) even theorizes that regret is an essential psychological construct related to decision-making, coping, and learning.

Regret can also be helpful because it signals the need for a corrective action, which can push people into implementing that action. Under the right circumstances, this can be considered a beneficial consequence of regret.

Mental Health and Regret

Even though regret may bring positive change to one’s life, regret is more commonly associated with the negative effects it can have on a person’s happiness. Regret may lead to:

  • A bias in one’s decision-making, resulting in poor choices being made
  • Anxiety caused by repeatedly thinking about the perceived better choice or behavior
  • Chronic feelings of sadness and dysphoria
  • Varying degrees of guilt
  • Shame
  • Anger

Regret can significantly impede happiness because regret often causes people to feel shame, sadness, or remorse about decisions or the ways in which they have spent their lives. Sometimes regret can contribute to depression, but depression can also cause feelings of regret that were not previously there.

Therapy can be a useful tool to help you or someone you know cope with feelings of regret. When people spend years fixating on a regrettable choice they often need help to move past it, and seeking a therapist can help people talk through, understand, and move beyond regret.


  1. Colman, A. M. (2006).Oxford dictionary of psychology. New York, NY: Oxford University Press
  2. Roese, N. J., Epstude, K., Fessel, F., Morrison, M., Smallman, R., Summerville, A., . . . Segerstrom, S. (2009). Repetitive regret, depression, and anxiety: findings from a nationally representative survey. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 28(6), 671-688. Retrieved from
  3. Zeelenberg, M., & Pieters, R. (2007). A theory of regret regulation 1.0. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 17, 3-18.

Last Updated: 08-20-2015

  • Leave a Comment
  • Pedro S

    December 13th, 2016 at 6:28 AM

    I run groups in a facility where some people have some really heavy issues on resentments,abadement, and anger.

  • Iago

    July 14th, 2022 at 10:34 PM

    I have had a really bad experience with regret. It all started when I had a relationship with a guy named m. At first it was all right, not just alright, it was just wonderful, more than anything I expected. But… months go by and I was just the dependent kind of guy, and m was very independent, at the end of the relationship he was hating me so much for not changing and just giving “empty apologies” that he left me. Some of the last things he said was “take care of your mother, and if you be with someone else in the future, dont do the same as you did to me.” Nowadays I am married, in the begining I did all the same, lied as shit, didnt take any responsibility, so on… But now I am learning to be responsible for my actions and really contribute to the growth of the person which is with me. But my relationship with my mother, so regret. My gf hates my mother, and I think my mother somehow stimulates me to be dependent but as I think of it all bad things i said to my mother come to mind, and everything I do seems wrong, I mean… EVERYTHING, my work , my life, all the choices I make everyday, just everything seems like a real bad decision. I have many times experienced deep dysphoria, I would cut my legs off just not to need to go through dysphoria again(I know it wont work)

  • Glenda

    October 8th, 2022 at 2:53 AM

    I cheated on my husband while still married

Leave a Comment

By commenting you acknowledge acceptance of's Terms and Conditions of Use.


* Indicates required field.

GoodTherapy uses cookies to personalize content and ads to provide better services for our users and to analyze our traffic. By continuing to use this site you consent to our cookies.