Managing Feelings — 23 October 2006
How you can benefit from your regrets

Regret is an uncomfortable emotion. It contains loss, missed opportunity, self-reprimand and even grief. The thought of “If only” may spiral you into a painful and even hopeless emotional state. Yet, regrets may also be a positive edict for present and future actions.

Many people, when reviewing their lives to date, can articulate certain regrets they have. The regrets may be about choices they made, actions they took or did not take, opportunities missed and errors made.

“True regrets” are the assessments of past actions in view of subsequent facts. For example, an individual who turned down a job with a small and unknown company is deeply regretful when the shunned company has become a giant in the field. Though the data was unavailable to the individual at the time he declined that position, he is deeply pained now by having missed the challenges and rewards he would have enjoyed had he accepted that offer.

Other regrets are not based on new data, but are established on idealized fantasies of what might have happened. For example: an individual who regrets not having started his own company that could have made him extremely successful is engaged in “fantasy regret”. It is a form of daydreaming based on hope and wishful thinking rather than reality. This type of regret can be hazardous to one’s esteem and wellbeing.

Most regrets are private. People rarely share them with others, unless asked, and even then with caution. Grieving for what could have and didn’t happen is each person’s secret rumination. However, when it comes to couple regrets, those are more frequently shared.

Couples may choose to discuss their shared disappointments. They may regret, for example, not having had more children, not being there enough as their children grew up, severed family connection, or not spending enough time with each other. Many of the couple’s regrets are associated with missed opportunities for greater connection and intimacy.

Though no one can redo his/her or their past, they can certainly look at the themes of their regrets as clues for improving their present and future. The type of regret offers an indication of what truly matters to each member of the pair. Each regret speaks of unfulfilled present yearning.

Couples who feel sad about not having had more children or not spending enough time with them may be missing a connection with the younger generation. They may decide to quench their thirst for loving the young through volunteer work, foster parenting, or delving into grandparenting with zeal.

If their pain surrounds past poor family relationships, they can forge to remediate these severed connections. In one family an outcast older cousin, who erred in his youth, offered his apologies thirty years later and the family forgave him. They then learned to look up to him, as he became the wise elder of the clan.

Regretting relationship neglect in the past is a sounding alarm for instant repair in the present. It is seldom too late to let a mate know how much he/she is missed and how interested the formerly unavailable person is in becoming a devoted, doting partner.

• Analyzing your regrets is a healthy way to become newly accountable for your moral, emotional and relational behavior. Ignoring your past conduct may keep you unhappy and even hopeless.
• Separate the “fantasy regret” from “true regrets”. Remind yourself that delving into unrealistic sadness about what could have been may be a way to keep yourself miserable and immobile. Realistic regrets can be insightful guidelines for creating a more authentic life based on principles, emotions and connection to others.
• Every regret carries a message of hope about unmet needs. Explore the lessons of your regrets and how you can benefit from them in enhancing your current and future life.
• Ask yourself: “How would I like to feel at the end of my life in reviewing my past? Would I feel better having accumulated more regrets, or acting differently once I understood the message of my pain?”
• Explored pain can give birth to a new mission for your life.
• The answers may lead you to take action toward a healthier, happier, and more rewarding life.
• Talk with your partner about your mutual disappointments. As hard as it may be sharing your regrets it is deeply bonding and can help set new goals and create a more meaningful and intimate relationship.

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About Author

Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist in clinical practice in Santa Cruz, California for over 25 years, and specializes in relationship issues for couples and individuals for improved quality of life. Her work includes: mate selection, marriage, long term relationships, gay and lesbian couples, work relationships, parenting issues, family interactions, friendships, and conflict resolutions. Offra has lectured extensively to various groups, conducted support groups for several organizations, and has been writing a weekly column "Relationship Matters" for the Santa Cruz Sentinel since 2001.

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