This is our third post in a series on regret, based on Daniel Pink’s new book The Power of Regret. Based on surveys with thousands of people, and countless interviews, Pink has identified 4 core types of regrets that people experience in their lives. In this series, we’re looking at how each of these types of regrets can hold you back in your career and what you can do to move past them.

Moral Regrets

The third kind of regrets that Pink describes are Moral Regrets. Those come up when we don’t live up to our own ethical standards. These could be major ethical breeches like lying, cheating or stealing. Moral regrets also include feeling bad for doing or saying something that may have hurt someone. Or not treating someone with the respect they deserved. Or discovering that you were biased in some way that impacted how you interacted with someone.

While we’d like to think of ourselves as ethical, it’s human to slip up. We all make mistakes sometimes.

Those mistakes become a problem when our regret about them takes over. When we have big regrets, one of two things can happen:

  1. We can move away from the regret, avoiding the feeling by denying wrong-doing or belittling the impact of our actions.
  2. We can dwell in the regret, never really forgiving ourselves or moving on.

Either of these strategies can take a huge toll on your career.

Going into avoidance and denying your error can cost your reputation. If you’ve made a mistake – particularly one that represents a moral or ethical breach – the only way to regain trust and put your career back on track is to fully own it. Any shirking or shrinking from responsibility only erodes trust.

Unfortunately, for many people, the pain of facing a moral regret can be so intense that they automatically move away from it. They look outside themselves for blame – pointing to circumstances, or other people as the cause of their lapse. Usually, this is an unconscious process – an attempt by our minds to make us feel better. Sometimes it’s a conscious, if misguided, strategy. The idea is that placing blame somewhere else will make it easier to get away with the error.

The reality is that this rarely works. In the long run, the truth usually comes out. When it does, the damage can be even worse. Not only is the person’s reputation sullied by the initial moral failing, but now they are seen as someone who won’t take responsibility or ownership.

Not everyone goes into denial about their regrets. Some people do the opposite – they dwell in them, punishing themselves over and over for what they could have or should have done. They carry their past moral failings around, fidgeting with them like worry stones in their pockets. When a new challenge or difficult task comes along, out come the worry stones, reminders of why they don’t measure up, why they’re not good enough.

While owning one’s mistakes is laudable, dwelling in them in this way can also take a huge toll on your career and on your life. Self-flagellation and punishment can get in the way of truly seeing what went wrong and learning from it.

More importantly, it can keep you from moving on and doing the good that you can do next. If you’re constantly thinking of the past and how wrong you were, you’re not likely to step into your future to make the contributions you can make. That is a huge waste of your talents and energy. The best way to overcome a moral regret is to do good work out in the world. You can’t do that if you’re constantly looking in the rearview mirror at the mistakes in your past.

At the core of becoming a trusted and authentic leader is the practice of fully accepting yourself. When you can own your mistakes and failings, then there’s no need to hide behind excuses, or continually beat yourself up for them. Instead, you’ll move through regrets – even deep regrets – and then learn from your mistakes. You’ll use those experiences to clarify what’s important to you and what you stand for. You’ll discover the triggers and thought patterns that may cause you to go off track, so you can catch it before it happens again. All of that makes you stronger.

If you’ve been haunted by moral regrets, and you’re ready to put them behind you and get on with making the contribution you’re meant to make, we’d like to help you with that. Schedule a call with my team, and let’s shift your attention to the future and the career – and the impact – you want to create. You can book that call at

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