What You Can Do When You Regret Something You Said (or Didn’t Say)

When interactions don’t go our way, we often get stuck in an inner commentary of “if only.” Here’s a 3-step process to move on with the best of you!

Courtesy of  ZenShui / Michele Constantini / Getty Images 

You said something and now you wish you could take it back. It could be something you said in a meeting, to a friend or at a party. Perhaps you regret it because you spoke too soon and hadn’t thought through to the consequences. Perhaps you regret it because it didn’t come out right and created more complications or made you look bad. Perhaps you regret it because you hurt the other person and you think your relationship can never be the same again.

And now all you’re left with is “if only.

If only I’d stayed quiet.”

If only I had said it differently.”

If only I’d replied this way, or that.” And you keep replaying these conversations in your mind through the night and into your work day. They keep barging into your mental space and leave you feeling worse about yourself every single time.

We’ve all been there! I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve walked away from an interaction, convinced it didn’t go well and desperately wishing it had gone differently. Some years ago, I would get stuck in this inner dialogue and chastise myself for what I should have done and didn’t do — an underlying message of inadequacy that rarely led to clear thinking.

In the many years since that I’ve spent doing research on women’s self-worth, I’ve found that one of the biggest reasons we get stuck in our emotions is that we encase our words in moral judgment. “I didn’t say it kindly,” becomes, “I’m a bad person”. “I didn’t say it strongly,” is read as, “I’m a weak person”. And with that, we unleash the potential catastrophes that will surely follow. “No one will want to talk to me. No one will ever take me seriously.”

Underlying message — I’m unworthy and I’ll be left all alone.

And so we dive for the tub of ice cream or numb our painful emotions in other unhealthy ways. We begin to avoid similar interactions, or offer weak excuses in a desperate attempt to please. We raise the bar higher for ourselves and inadvertently set ourselves up for eventual failure. And we stay stuck in a lifetime of silent shame.

If you relate to any of this, here’s a 3-step process that will help you move past the avalanche of shame and blame, and learn and grow through the experience.

Meet the Emotions with Compassion

There’s ample research to show that self-compassion helps calm feelings of shame and inadequacy because it talks the language of emotion. You can think of it as a forgiving mother who listens to her emotional child without judgment while holding them in her warm embrace. Many people are uncomfortable with the idea of being kind to themselves, especially when they believe they said something they shouldn’t have or made a fool of themselves. Many others don’t know how to say a kind word to themselves because they never have, and talking to themselves kindly feels inauthentic and weak. The good news is that self-compassion not only returns your body to a state of calm; it provides you with the courage and conscious awareness to take corrective action where needed.

Practice: Breathe into the emotions with understanding and name them to create distance. Say, “Frustration is here,” or, “Shame is here,” as if they were visitors who’ll soon leave.

Navigate Them with Curiosity

Often we’re feeling more than a single emotion. There could be frustration, but also shame, or anger, or fear, or all of them. If so, identify the one that’s causing you the most pain and address the others in sequence if you need to. Ask yourself what’s the message your emotion is trying to convey, because emotions are messengers from the inner world. Denying them, bottling them up, or distracting ourselves doesn’t make them go away. Engaging in pleasing or perfecting behaviors simply masks them in the present but makes us more vulnerable over time. When you listen to them, you may realize that the message is one that’s based on past fears or catastrophic predictions of the future — in which case you can safely let go of it. Or it may be reminding you of something that does need your attention.

Practice: Listen to the message in your emotion and then ask yourself: “Is this true or based on my fears?” You may also ask: “Is it likely to happen, and if so, how likely?”

Decide on the Right Action

Now that you’re navigated the emotion(s) with compassion and curiosity, you’re ready to decide on the right thing to do. Unlike action that’s underpinned by fear, conscious action is pro-social by nature because it’s aligned with your values and leads to feelings of goodness and mastery, both essential for authentic self-worth. You may realize that you need to meet the person to clarify what you said — or to apologize. You may realize that it wasn’t that bad after all, but that in the future you’ll practice important conversations so your delivery is more impactful. Or you may realize that it’s a recurring thought that’s way past its time and that you need to replace it with recollections of the positive interactions you regularly have with others.

Practice: Ask yourself, “What’s Important Now?” (W.I.N) — a great strategy used by swimming star and Olympian Michael Phelps when things didn’t go his way.

So the next time you say something you regret, reach out for the mother in you. She’ll help you find the courage to do the right thing. 

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