Dealing With Regrets Caused By Your Poor People Skills
A lot of people who have been shy or socially awkward have regrets about mistakes they've made because of it. They may feel regretful each day, or might mostly be fine, but every so often have moments where they dwell on something they did wrong years ago and think, "Ugh, If only I had done X instead..." They may have elaborate daydreams where they imagine how much better things would be if they could magically start their life over again, knowing everything they know now.
Some common social regrets
- "Everyone had so much fun in high school and college. I wasted those years."
- "I shouldn't have lost touch with that friend."
- "I should have stood up to that bully in middle school."
- "I shouldn't have been so weird and quiet all those times."
- "I should have joined more clubs in high school."
- "I wish I had gotten more into sports as a kid, instead of being the guy who was always picked last in gym class."
- "I shouldn't have wimped out of X."
- "I wish I spent my time and money better in high school, instead of just playing video games on my own."
- "I should have been friends with those people I thought weren't my style, instead of hanging out by myself all the time instead."
- "I wish I was more social as a kid."
- "If only I did such-and-such earlier."
- "I should have learned (an instrument/a sport/a language/how to drive/etc.) when I was younger. My life would be so much simpler now if I had that skill."
- "If only I hadn't let X chance pass me by."
- Anything dating related, e.g., "I should have talked to that guy", "I should have said yes when _____ asked me out", "I should have made a move on her when I had a chance", etc.
It's hard not to let this stuff get to you sometimes. Especially if you're still not where you want to be socially, it's pretty easy to get caught up in all the "what if's". Here are my thoughts on dealing with your regrets:
You're never going to totally get over all your regrets
Everyone has made mistakes or missed opportunities in their life. What seemed like the right decision for years may end poorly, and now it's too late to go back and make another choice. Sometimes you have to pick between two equally good, but different and mutually exclusive, options, and no matter which you go with you're going to lose out on the rewards of the other.
It's just part of the human condition to sometimes regret past choices you've made. I think you can experience your regrets less often and not let them bum you out as much, but it's probably a little too optimistic to hope you can never feel regretful. So the best I can do in this article is offer a few points that may help take the edge off, not cure anything outright.
You tend to be more regretful when your life currently isn't going so well
I've noticed when people are feeling satisfied with their lives they don't really dwell on their regrets. It sounds a little trite, but they're too busy enjoying the present to worry about things they did wrong seven years ago. But I find as soon as they start to feel a little down, even temporarily because they've had a bad day at work or a squabble with their mom, then their mind is quicker to go into Regret Mode. And of course, when someone's life generally isn't where they want it to be, they'll be regretful quite often.
It's almost as if when you're feeling unsatisfied your mind starts scanning for solutions to your problems and lousy mood. But rather than cook up some comprehensive five-step plan about how to improve things going forward, it goes back in time and fixates on, "If only I hadn't done X in freshman year, my life would be great, and I wouldn't be feeling crappy at the moment."
Where I'm getting at with this is if you can get your current life into a decent state, your regrets will diminish. I know, much easier said than done, but at least there is some promise of relief in the future.
You can reduce your regrets by improving in the areas you're regretful about
This is looking at the same idea of the previous point in a different way. I just said that making your life better in a general, overall sense may reduce your regrets. In my experience it also helps to have some current success in the specific areas you're regretful about. I think we tend to have regrets in areas we care about doing well in, but feel we don't have the level of success we want. On the other hand, if we mess up in some area that's not important to us at all, then we're probably not going to lose sleep over it a decade later (e.g., screwing up at some monotonous part-time job you had one summer).
If you're having regrets about acting shy in the past, they may go away if you can become more socially confident in the present (again, one thing to say it, another to do it). Your old mistakes can't be undone, but if you can be happy in that area now, your mind may be able to let your previous errors rest in peace. Or say you focus on a past failure to stand up for yourself, because you still feel like you can't be assertive. Maybe if you learned some assertiveness skills you'd feel more capable, and would no longer have a need to dwell on that episode from grade school where a classmate pressured you into something.
You may be having regrets because of something you always wanted to do but haven't done yet. Your mind is going to, "You had a chance back then and you blew it." Do that thing if possible, and your worries may be put at ease. Of course some opportunities aren't practical to do too long after you've missed out on them the first time. However, you may be able to find another experience that feels like the equivalent.
See what lessons you can learn from the regret, and aim to make your life better going forward
Did you learn something valuable? Did having to live with the outcomes of a poor choice force you to develop certain strengths? It's not that finding a silver lining in your old screw ups will make your feelings of regret vanish, but it can take some of the sting away. It can give you a sense those decisions weren't a total disaster. If there's still a chance to succeed in that area, your past mistakes may give you the knowledge and motivation to get it right this time ("I know how bad it feels after being too afraid to ask someone to hang out. I won't let that happen again.")
Don't assume your life would be so much better if you had only done certain things differently
When you have thoughts of the, "I should have done ________" variety, a lot of the regret comes from thinking that if you had just done it, the outcome would have been amazing. Sometimes you have the supposed outcome totally mapped out in your head. At other times you just assume things would turn out well without really going into detail as to why it would work out that way:
- "If only I had done more with my life in high school... I would have become super popular, had a magical time like out of some movie, and gone on to have an awesome time in college."
- "If only I had kept in touch with my friends... I'd have a colorful, fulfilling social life to this day."
- "If only I had stood up to that bully... I would have easily, stylishly, and satisfyingly pummeled him, while everyone looked on and thought I was a ninja badass."
- "If only I had talked to my cute co-worker... we would have fallen in love and had a blissful romantic affair."
Who's to say the outcome would have been so positive though? It could have been more mundane and anti-climatic:
- "If I had only done more with my life in high school... I'd have a little more fun, but ultimately come away feeling the same way about the whole experience as I do now. I'd have a pretty fun time at college, but nothing spectacular."
- "If only I had kept in touch with my friends... we'd hang out for another six months, before we naturally drifted apart anyway."
- "If only I had stood up to that bully... I would have nervously stared him down for a minute before the teachers came and broke us up. I wouldn't get blatantly picked on anymore after that, but people at school would still generally ignore me and think I was strange."
- "If only I had talked to my cute co-worker... we would chat awkwardly for a minute before I realized we weren't each other's type."
If you catch yourself thinking back to some pivotal moment where you wanted to have done things differently, just remind yourself there's no guarantee the outcome would have been a best-case scenario. It's just easier to fill in the blank that way because you'll never know what would have really happened. There are probably times in your life where you did take a chance, or stood up for yourself, or kept in touch with some friends, or whatever. Likely it sometimes worked out great, but most of the time the results were pretty forgettable.
Don't falsely assume that you have no more chances going forward
Some people are so regretful because they believe it's too late for them to do something now. Sometimes they're correct - If you're middle age you've missed your chance to go to high school prom. At other times they've mistakenly assumed a door is closed when it really isn't. For example, they may believe it's impossible to make a big group of friends after college, because they think everyone gets too busy with work and family. Sure, it's harder to do that after university, but hardly out of reach. There's no need to be cripped with regret over not socializing enough at college, because you thought that was your only shot.
Try not to have regrets over failing to perform to an unrealistic standard
Shy, insecure people can be too hard on themselves in the present. They can beat themselves up for not being socially perfect and knowing the exact right thing to do in a situation - "If only I went to that party... and been incredibly smooth and charismatic and got everyone to love me, things would have turned out so well!" It's not realistic to feel down about something because you didn't live up to unattainable standards.
Try to be forgiving of the fact you couldn't possibly be expected to know certain things as a kid
This ties in to the last point. Some regrets are based on expecting yourself to have a level of intelligence, savvy, and knowledge you couldn't possibly have had at the time. Someone may kick themselves for not acting like a sophisticated adult when they were twelve. Try to have some compassion and understanding for the fact that you couldn't know many things when you were a child or teenager. You were doing the best you could at the time given the circumstances and your natural personality. If you were naturally inhibited, and came from a home where your parents weren't that social themselves and never showed you the basics, you can't have expected yourself to have a bold, outgoing personality and effortlessly known how to charm everyone.
If an opportunity is truly gone, give yourself time to mourn it
It's not easy or comfortable, but if something you wanted is absolutely out of reach, one way to help put it behind you may be to let yourself feel sad about it and allow those emotions to work their way out of your system. Give yourself time and space to really grieve the loss of a past or future you wanted but couldn't have. Again, this isn't fun, but you can feel more at peace with things afterward.
Everyone has regrets
This point is a little cheesy in that it's saying, "There there, don't feel bad", but is somewhat short on substance. Like I said earlier, we all have our regrets. Sometimes when we're feeling regretful we almost believe we're the only one who's ever made a poor choice in life. Of course, we all have things we wished we had done differently. No one gets everything right all the time. Everyone's a genius in hindsight, but we all have to go through our years of being young and clueless. It can make you feel a little better to realize this, that you're not some wretched disaster who's all alone in having an imperfect past. Just you and everyone else on the planet.
Here's a related article about what you can do when your regrets specifically cause you to painfully wince at what you did:
A Way To Handle Uncomfortable Cringey Memories Of Your Social Mistakes