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How To Deal With Regret ( 3 Stoic Strategies to Live Free)


What Is Regret?

“Two elements must therefore be rooted out once for all, – the fear of future suffering, and the recollection of past suffering; since the latter no longer concerns me, and the former concerns me not yet.” – Seneca, from Letters from a Stoic

After a long day at work and terrible traffic, you finally make it home. The stress has taken its toll, and you’re exhausted, bored, and frustrated with the day’s events all at once. You walk into your kitchen to find a heaping pile of dishes–something you asked your spouse to take care of this morning! Yet, they’re relaxing in front of the TV as if nothing’s wrong.

You feel the anger rising up, and unable to control yourself, you yell at your spouse. You don’t hold back. You’re out to make a point, to prove that what happened is a really big deal.

Your spouse is frightened and embarrassed. They’re worried–you’ve never yelled at them like this before. They were going to do the dishes later, but you never gave them that opportunity. The day’s been long for them too, yet you didn’t care. They just wanted to have a nice night with you, but now that’s ruined.

Later that night, you finally start to understand what losing your temper has cost you. You know you shouldn’t have said what you said. You should have been more considerate. You should have acted differently–you regret your choices.

Maybe for you it wasn’t a pile of dishes that set you off. Maybe it was your kids using markers on the wall. Or your boss dumping that report on you before your vacation. Regardless of the scenario, we’ve all lost it at some point, and we’ve all felt the pang of regret. 

The Stoics would define regret as the moment when past events consume our present lives. When we dwell over things we have no control over. When we resist our fate. Marcus Aurelius argued that we must be “satisfied with what [we] have, and accept the present–all of it.” Regret is the contrary–when we’re not satisfied with what we have, when we reject what we’ve been given.

Seneca said “we often suffer more in imagination than in reality.” He was saying that regret is no more than an emotion of our imagination. We believe that had we said something (or held our tongue), had we acted differently, the outcome would have been different. 

Marcus Aurelius carried a similar mindset, and provided a solution to this problem. “External things are not the problem. It is your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now.” 

Let’s take another look at that “fight” you had with your spouse. Your regrets are not about the actual dishes or your spouse–it’s about your perception of expectations. You expected your spouse to have the dishes done when you got home. So you believe it should have been different, and had it been different, you would be better off. 

So does that mean it’s your spouse’s fault? Maybe for leaving the dishes in the sink. But certainly not for your overreaction. And definitely not for the regret you felt later that night. Regret is an internal problem, to be both diagnosed and treated by ourselves. We must learn to look past these “self-focused emotions” and master our feelings of regret. This post aims to help you understand your emotions, use the past to your advantage, and conquer your biggest regrets.

Why Do I Feel Regret?

“Life is very short and anxious for those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear the future” – Seneca 

We’ve all told ourselves, “no regrets.” There are countless memes, inspirational quotes, and videos reminding us online. Poets, singers, painters, and writers have been creating art about it for millenia.  We’ve practically been conditioned to live by it.

But no matter how many times we read about it, sing along to a song about it, or tell ourselves not to, we all have something we regret. We all have that nagging feeling that comes back to us. That hits us exactly when we thought we forgot about that time, that place, those people. It comes back at the very worst time. It sucks. It hurts.

The power of regret is not to be understated. Bestselling author and founder of the American Regret Project Daniel Pink found that 82 percent of Americans experience regret at least occasionally. Pink describes regret as “an indispensable emotion,” yet also claims it can be “a positive instrument for improving your life.”

If we truly want to improve our life, we can’t run away from these negative feelings. We can’t hide them. But should we just accept this despair? Should we just come to terms living with regret?

This is what the great writer Samuel Johnson must have been wondering near the end of 1775. With 1776 on the horizon, Johnson wrote in his diary:

“When I look back on resolutions of improvement and amendment which have year after year been made and broken, either by negligence, forgetfulness, vicious idleness, casual interruption, or morbid infirmity; when I find that so much of my life has been stolen unprofitably away, and that I can descry by retrospection scarcely a few single days properly and vigorously employed, why do I yet try to resolve again? I try because reformation is necessary and despair is criminal.”

Johnson came to terms with his past, but not with his regret. He chose to reflect upon his hardships in order to better himself, to avoid making those same mistakes in the future. He chose to fight regret–not to wallow in it.

If there’s one thing we can learn from Johnson, it must be that experiencing regret is inevitable–but our actions and our mindset are not. Thus, the question is not ‘Why do I feel regret?’, but rather ‘How do I deal with it?’ ‘How do I move on?’ ‘How can I make myself better because of this?’ In order to answer these questions, the Stoics practiced the following strategies to help them build their mental toughness and resilience–starting with examining what they controlled.

Focus On What You Control

“Every event has two handles, one by which it can be carried, and one by which it can’t. If your brother does you wrong, don’t grab it by his wronging, because this is the handle incapable of lifting it. Instead, use the other—that he is your brother, that you were raised together, and then you will have hold of the handle that carries.” – Epictetus

One of the most important practices in Stoic philosophy, which was introduced by Epictetus, is determining what we control and what we don’t. What we have power over and what we don’t. What we can change and what we can’t.

There are two ways in which we can look at the past–two handles we can grab, to use Epictetus’ quote. The first handle forces us to perceive the past as an inevitable experience, destined to wrong and hurt us from the beginning. The opposite handle, however, allows us to extract the good parts, and use our experiences to benefit ourselves. 

In looking at past decisions, we must grab them by the latter handle. We must understand that what happened, happened. We must see that we can’t change the past, no matter how much it hurt us or someone else. So what good does regret do?

Absolutely nothing, as Holocaust survivor and author Dr. Edith Eger explained to Ryan Holiday on an episode of The Daily Stoic Podcast. Ryan was discussing a relationship he regretted messing up, and Dr. Eger offered him one gift that would solve the guilt right then. “I give you a sentence,” she said, “One sentence—if I knew then what I know now, I would have done things differently.” That’s the end of that, she said. “Guilt is in the past, and the one thing you cannot change is the past.” 

As a society we’ve become disillusioned by the idea of what we control. We all believe we have some control over the outcome of whatever we encounter. We all believe that if we keep thinking about what happened, somehow we’ll be able to change what happened. 

Yet, we must come to terms with the fact that some things simply can’t be changed. We must understand that some things are in our control and some that aren’t. Say, if you regret getting a haircut, you’re in control. You can style it, cover it, or just wait for it to grow out again–you command your situation. But if you regret cursing out your boss before quitting your job, you’re not in control–you can’t take back your words.

As Marcus Aurelius wrote to himself—and by extension, to us:

“Remind yourself that past and future have no power over you. Only the present—and even that can be minimized. Just mark off its limits. And if your mind tries to claim that it can’t hold out against that…well, then, heap shame upon it.”

The past is done. We can’t linger in our insecurities. We can’t ponder over our regrets. We must learn that what happened is out of our control now–we must let go. 

“Letting go is a necessary, if sometimes heart-wrenching gateway to genuine transformation,” is how the always-zen basketball coach Phil Jackson put it. The Stoics called it the “art of acquiescence”—the giving up and the assenting of whatever things are so that they can be what they are to become.

In one way, regret is just wishing things went the way we wanted them to. But by letting things become what they must, we are less likely to regret what we’ve done. In accepting that some things are simply out of our control, we are less likely to wish for a different outcome.

The past is something we can’t control anymore. We can’t change what we said, what we did, or how we felt. 

We can, however, control the present. We control how we grow from our experiences. We control how we respond to adversity. We control how we can use our regret to our advantage.

We control how we act right now. We must.

To learn more on this topic, check out “You Control How You Play”, where Ryan speaks to the Cleveland Browns about the importance of perspective, staying motivated, and knowing what they control. 

Love Your Fate

“A blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it.” – Marcus Aurelius

After we sort out what we control, we must find how to respond–regardless if we control what’s happening or not. We must determine how we handle ourselves. We must determine how we overcome obstacles. We must determine how to move forward.

In the first book of his Discourses, Epictetus envisions himself being executed by Roman guards, his life out of his control. In a display of tranquility and wisdom, he lays out his thoughts: 

“I must die. But must I die bawling? I must be put in chains–but moaning and groaning too? I must be exiled; but is there anything to keep me from going with a smile, calm and self-composed.”

Though the term was first coined by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, the practice of amor fati–loving your fate–dates back to Epictetus and the Stoics. Often by means of reflection and meditation, the Stoics would use this practice to settle past trauma and help them achieve a greater sense of inner peace. “The Fates guide the person who accepts them,” Cleanthes said, “and hinder the person who resists them.”

Amor fati is more than just understanding what happens to us. It’s understanding that our perception doesn’t always have to be negative. It’s understanding that accepting the present circumstances will make us better. It’s understanding that we must be grateful for the cloudy weather sometimes–and that there’s always a way through the storm.

We all face hardships. We all get stuck in traffic. We all deal with slow WiFi, or bad cell service, right when we need to send that important message. As rational people, we tend to think that these hardships were made specifically for us. That the world is out to get us. That we can’t win. 

But this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Everybody goes through obstacles. Everybody gets tripped up sometimes. As we talked about in the first section, we can’t control some things in life. And these hardships, no matter how hard we try, will always be out of our control.

When we accept what happens to us, after understanding that certain things— particularly bad things—are outside our control, we are left with this: loving whatever happens to us and facing it with unfailing cheerfulness and strength. As bestselling author Robert Greene (48 Laws of Power, Mastery) put it, we need to, “accept the fact that all events occur for a reason, and that it is within your capacity to see this reason as positive.”

Marcus Aurelius portrays this concept perfectly in Meditations through the image of an artisans shop:

“There are thorns on the path, then keep away! Enough said. Why ponder the existence of nuisance? Such thinking would make you a laughing-stock to the true student of Nature, just as a carpenter or cobbler would laugh if you pointed out the sawdust and chips on the floors of their shops. Yet while those shopkeepers have dustbins for disposal, Nature has no need of them.” 

Why get tripped up by the thorns? Why ponder over the sawdust on your floor? It’s simply part of nature! As long as you have the capability to see them, you have the capability to move past them.

In practicing amor fati, we’re also less likely to have regrets in the future. By embracing the challenges that lay ahead of us, we’re less likely to regret the decisions we make to conquer them – regardless of the outcome. We’re able to tackle the future with confidence, conviction, courage, and so much more. 

Amor fati is more than just a mindset–it’s a way of life. Incorporating amor fati into your life will take time, effort, and sacrifices that probably won’t feel comfortable. But we must. We must move past this existential angst. We must move forward, away from our regret, and towards our future. 

Love what’s happened to you. Love who you’ve become, and how much you’ve changed. Love your fate–amor fati.

Carry this reminder with you every day with our amor fati medallion from the Daily Stoic Store. Carry this in your pocket as a reminder to treat each and every moment–no matter how challenging–as something to be embraced, not avoided.

Look Ahead

“We should project our thoughts ahead of us at every turn and have in mind every possible eventuality instead of only the usual course of action.” – Seneca

Before Ryan Holiday gets on stage for a big speech, he runs through everything that could go wrong: trouble with the microphone, the clicker not advancing a slide, the audience not reacting as anticipated. He is able to see potential problems before they arise, and come up with solutions before anything actually happens. He is able to prevent himself from being overwhelmed if a problem arises by being prepared. 

“Rehearse them in your mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck,” Seneca said. “All the terms of our human lot should be before our eyes.”

This practice, called premeditatio malorum, is one of the oldest and most common practices in Stoic philosophy. It literally means the “premeditation of evils.” The Stoics used this practice to help them prepare for life’s inevitable hardships, and remain calm and confident in turbulent times.

The world isn’t fair. We all know this. We don’t always get what is ours, even if we’ve earned it. We don’t always win, even if we play hard. 

But we can’t be surprised when we don’t win. If it comes as a constant surprise each and every time something unexpected occurs, you’re not only going to be miserable whenever you attempt something big, you’re going to have a much harder time accepting it and moving on to attempts two, three, and four. You’re going to have a much harder time living in the present instead of lingering in the past. You’re going to have a much harder time trusting your instincts–and fighting regret.

There’s perhaps no better personification of premeditatio malorum than the great Booker T. Washington. Washington ran a school with 1,500 students, all while advising politicians and activists and traveling across the country to give speeches. But how? How did he maintain this lifestyle, and with such striking success?

“When I begin my work in the morning, I expect to have a successful and pleasant day of it, but at the same time I prepare myself to hear that one of our school buildings is on fire, or has burned, or that some disagreeable accident had occurred, or that someone has abused me in a public address or a printed article, for something that I have done or omitted to do, or or something that he had heard that I had said—probably something I had never thought of saying.”

He envisioned the worst possible things that could happen to him throughout his day. Not only envisioned, but he expected them to happen. In doing this, Washington was more prepared for the hardships of the day. A canceled train couldn’t be as bad as his school burning down. Being late to dinner couldn’t be as bad as someone verbally abusing him in public.

In preparing himself for challenges, Washington was simultaneously preparing himself for regret. Since he saw his fears right in front of him, and anticipated them happening, he was less scared of the outcomes of his choices–and he was less likely to regret them.

In the same manner, Epictetus used this to help him foresee all of the dangers that came with a seemingly easy decision–bathing:

“If you are going to bathe, represent to yourself the incidents usual in the bath—some persons pouring out, others pushing in, others scolding, others pilfering…. For thus, if any impediment arises in bathing, you will be able to say, “It was not only to bathe that I desired, but to keep my will in harmony with nature; and I shall not keep it thus if I am out of humor at things that happen.”

Practicing premeditatio malorum allows us to be more prepared for life’s inevitable setbacks. Though it may be hard to admit, everything will not go our way. We might not get that job that we want. We might not win that game. But we will be ready for any obstacles that cross our path. 

We’ll know that we made the right decision – and we won’t regret our choices. 

If you want to hear Ryan talk more about this topic, check out The Stoic Secret Of Facing Failure To Achieve Success: Premeditatio Malorum on the Daily Stoic YouTube Channel

10 Best Stoic Quotes on Regret

“Then remind yourself that past and future have no power over you. Only the present – and even that can be minimized.” – Marcus Aurelius, from Meditations

“He is a wise man who does not grieve for the things which he has not, but rejoices for those which he has.” – Epictetus, from Fragments

“External things are not the problem. It is your assessment of them. Which you can erase right now.” – Marcus Aurelius, from Meditations

“Give yourself a gift, the present moment.” – Marcus Aurelius, from Meditations

“The man who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive.”- Seneca, from Consolation to Marcia

“To shrug it all off and wipe it clean—every annoyance and distraction—and reach utter stillness. Child’s play.” — Marcus Aurelius, from Meditations

“Two elements must therefore be rooted out once for all, – the fear of future suffering, and the recollection of past suffering; since the latter no longer concerns me, and the former concerns me not yet.” – Seneca, from Letters from a Stoic

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” – Viktor Frankl

“There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.” – Epictetus, from Discourses

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the only things you hoped for.” – Epicurus

Additional Resources


Holocaust Survivor Dr. Edith Eger on the Gift of Forgiveness

Kate Courtney, Karen Duffy, Meg Mason, and Susan Cain on Using Stoicism to Endure Life’s Obstacles

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“We Almost Always Regret This”

“The Question To Ask When You Mess Up”

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