Many sessions with my clients are sprinkled with thoughts about regret.
What if I had done this instead of that?
Why didn’t I know this sooner?
What if I had gone, not gone, chosen a different doctor?
As you can imagine, the “what if” list goes on and on. I get it. In fact, I still think of how I lost my dad a few years ago. Sometimes I ruminate on how many things went wrong during the lung transplant he had, that we hoped might save his life. If I had known that he would have needed two lungs instead of one I would have championed the cause. IF I HAD KNOWN. But the reality is that I didn’t know. I didn’t have a gut feeling. What I did know was that besides his lungs, he was healthy. I also knew people who had had single lung transplants and were doing well. I couldn’t have predicted just how bad the situation was. While I fully realize that it was impossible to know, some part of me still wishes that in some way, I could have known.
The other thing that I did after my dad passed is that I focused on the last time we met. In fact, I have focused on the last time I have connected with everyone who I have ever lost through death. It was as if I wanted to remember if I said something nice. I wanted to remember if I said I love you. I wanted to comb through my memories to see if in each case, I parted exactly the way I should have.
I wonder if we need to worry so much about doing things in a way we think we,” should have”? I mean YES, we need to do the best we can to part the way we would want to with our dearest family members and friends, but how vigilant can we be expected to be? And when we lose someone dear, is the last memory the most important one anyway? When I think of my dad I think of many, many memories. I mostly remember the look in his eyes when he saw me or any of his kids. It was the look of pure love. He didn’t have to say anything. And if I’m honest, my father knew how much I loved him, without saying a word. There is no real reason to nitpick myself with regret.
This is the thing about life. I think every tragedy that befalls us can bring this sort of feeling. As soon as something goes wrong, people feel out of control. We grasp for answers because we don’t want to be faced with not knowing and not having any control. When we lose someone or something we love it is devastating. It twists and turns us and pains us so deeply that we vow to avoid that kind of pain again.
Years ago, I had a client come in because he was so rattled by regret that he could not sit alone with himself without thinking of it-even years after the event. One session, after we had established a good connection I said to him: “Wow, you really think you are that powerful? Powerful enough to have known everything you know now, back then? Powerful enough to convince someone else to listen to you?” He laughed and said, “That’s it, that’s what it is! I feel like I have to be that powerful. But now I get it, it isn’t always possible, is it?” That realization concluded our work together. He was free knowing that life doesn’t require us to be in control of everything at all times. He was free knowing that no one has that much power.
So what do we do when faced with regret? What to do when we look back on a life choice or a life moment that we wish we had done differently?
First off, it seems inevitable that we will feel some pieces of regret. And that is okay. Allow it. Feel it.
Second, we can actually look for the benefits of regret, that maybe regret can be a sort of teacher. Follow me for a minute. We can look at regret like a screaming teacher from our past. And this can help us with improvement (just make sure that it doesn’t overtake you). Since we are older and wiser, we can meet the teacher at the door and say YES – I want to improve some things based on information I know now. But I refuse to let you club me with bad feelings because I didn’t know then what I know now. No need to feel small. You can thank the teacher for stopping by and wish the teacher well.
Then shut the door.
Take the grain of knowledge and let the rest of the crappy, abusive regret go.
I know this is easier said than done. But just like going on a hike using only a compass would be hard, it is easier to have the compass than to simply guess the direction you are going. See this as a mechanism to show you which direction to head. Applaud your past self for doing the best you could with what you know, and feel more prepared with a new compass in your pocket.
Nicole C Weiss LCSW
- Phone: 619-318-5012
- Email: [email protected]