Monday, 23 November 2009
"Non, je ne regrette rien" (No, I do not regret anything) as legendary French singer Edith Piaf sang many years ago. "Why regret a life lived in full, good and bad?" as the song goes and also the mantra of many living under the banner of positive thinking. It is true, that a life lived well is inevitably a life with mistakes, however to completely deny regret is to ignore the chance to stop repeating the same mistakes. It can also become a phantom that never leaves but is never properly dealt with. Without regret and empathy for the impact we have on others then a narcissistc personality can be an unpleasant side effect.
Where some critical errors have been made, regret can be a time of reflection, learning and growth. At times in my life, confronted with the consequences of my decisions and actions, I have wished I'd done things differently and felt deep regret. "If only.." is one of the most painful thoughts that can then trigger a whole litany of thoughts that create psychological pain. How then does one turn regret into a positive?
Cherie (name changed), a woman in her late fifties and mother to a grown-up son, came to see me due to suffering from high levels of anxiety, including debilitating and daily panic attacks. Cherie was no longer able to venture very far from her door and had become extremely isolated. This was an extreme case of someone regretting far too much. It became clear that her biggest problem was her inability to accept many of the decisions she had made throughout her adult life, as well as some of the unfortunate life events that had tripped her up along the way. She was literally consumed by regret. This, coupled with her extremely active inner critic (her self-condemnatory thinking), had frozen Cherie in a place where she could not move forwards, nor create a better life for herself. After eight sessions, Cherie was able to live with a more realistic level of responsibility to the point that she no longer needed to be in therapy, with the tools at her disposal to better manage her emotions and recognise where she might be vulnerable to a relapse. Her panic attacks had stopped, she was doing voluntary work and was taking holidays once more, something she had been highly uncertain about just two months previously.
If you find yourself regretting the events of the past it can indeed increase your ability to face the present and also to create a more fulfilling future. Getting stuck in regret is not the same as learning from past mistakes however. Here are the basic steps for putting regret to good use:
1. Allow yourself to feel sad.
2. Recognise a realistic level of responsibility - not necessarily totally and completely responsible, nor completely removed!
3. Understand why, what and how: Why did this happen? What are your triggers or vulnerabilities? How will you respond differently?
4. Remind yourself that you are fallible.
5. Remind yourself that a life lived well is a life with mistakes.
6. Figure out what else you have learned about yourself.
7. Apologise if you think this helps and is appropriate - it is never too late and a simple "I'm sorry" goes a long way.
8. Accept that you can make mistakes and decide to move on without the fear of making more.
"The man who achieves makes many mistakes, but he never makes the biggest mistake of all - doing nothing" -Benjamin Franklin.