How Can I Deal with Profound Regret?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

Throughout my life, I’ve seemed to encounter many scenarios where I’ve been presented with choices or opportunities that had the power to completely change my life and give me different changes. I guess that’s true for everyone, but … I can’t help thinking I tend to often make the wrong choices, and at almost 60 years old I have several regrets that weigh on me on a regular basis.

I’m not very happy in general, but not suicidal or anything. It’s just that I think back on the course of my life, especially as I age, and all I want to do is reverse the choices I’ve made. I’m single and have been for the past 20 years or so, but I remember experiencing love and wishing I’d made different choices to make it last. I even received a couple proposals when I was younger, but turned them down thinking I’d find people who were a better fit. Of course, I didn’t, and now it’s too late, but I’m consumed with thoughts about the one (or two) that got away. I had a major career shift in my 30s, too, and deeply wish I had instead chosen to go back to school or at least think more about the choice I was faced with. If I had, maybe I would have a job I love now; maybe I would be able to retire; maybe I wouldn’t dread this path I chose.

All these things add up to profound disappointment in myself and a wish I could make things right. The thought that “I made my bed, now I have to lie in it” keeps coming back to me, and I mourn the bad decisions that brought me here and don’t know what to do to accept the life I made for myself. Is there such thing as a “cure” for regret? How can I make peace with the person I’ve become and the past I created for myself? —Looking Back

Dear Looking Back,

I read your very honestly expressed question with sadness, sensing traces of anguish or even despair beneath the surface. I got a hint of the sorrow and/or isolation you seem to be struggling with, especially when you said you weren’t “suicidal or anything.” In my clinical work, this is often a red flag for someone in or close to an emotional or existential crisis.

I highly recommend taking some self-supporting action sooner rather than later. You don’t want any more time to slip away, and it sounds as though you are in need of emotional support, to the point where there may actually be danger (in terms of possible anxiety or depression) in postponing such support for too much longer. It’s often a blow to the ego to say, “I need help,” but usually quite relieving in the long run.

Please note, incidentally, that I am obviously saying all this from a distance, and nothing here should be taken as “professional recommendation.” My only recommendation as a columnist (and psychotherapist) is that you seek therapy or some kind of spiritual/emotional counseling to help you wade through this dense and lonely thicket.

In the meantime, there are some things in your letter that aroused my curiosity, things you might want to consider or explore.

You hinted at a kind of perfectionism, as in the hope of finding someone who was a “better fit.” Perfectionism is double-sided, as we can strive toward greatness while gradually (unwittingly) stunting our own development. Nothing and no one is perfect.

In terms of relationships, most of us take a while to learn discover there is no such thing as a perfect fit. In fact—and you may know or intuit this by now—most “fits” need to be co-created in the relationship itself, with much trial and error. One could even make an argument that one definition of “love” is to accept or embrace a partner’s imperfections as the relationship develops. (Easier said than done!)

My sense is the fit in any kind of relationship—be it a romantic one, or a friendship, or even therapeutic—only has to be “good enough” in the beginning, so that any inevitable problems and differences can begin to be worked through. Most relationships are a work in progress. Though this wisdom is usually accompanied by tinges of regret, as in, “Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?” (Often they did, but we weren’t ready to hear it.)

In your case, I wonder what, specifically, lay behind your hope of a better fit? Better in what sense? Financially? Sexually? Emotionally? All of the above? Sometimes we worry others will not understand or “get” us in certain ways. Some of us struggle with shameful secrets, or terror of abandonment/rejection. Some may have sexual proclivities we are afraid to discuss or share with others. There may be hidden demands within us (also applied to others) that raise the bar beyond what is possible.

It sounds as if you had some sort of anxious apprehension about intimacy, even as you felt love—which, as you also might realize (and I hope I am not rubbing it in), is pretty rare.

This indicates to me there was some kind of risk or danger in taking the next step toward intimacy and commitment. What was it? It sounds like unconscious self-protection, as though a prospective relationship set off alarm bells in your psyche. Who or what set off those bells? They must have been pretty loud, is my hunch.

You also mention a major career shift which has apparently contributed to your unhappiness. Again, what swayed you from making other choices? It sounds as if you were compelled to do what you chose to do, almost as if under the sway of some internalized “executive order” to take a certain path … perhaps what appeared at the time to be safer, certainly less risky than whatever else caught your fancy.

This internal “order” or “boss” is also hinted at when you say, “I made my bed, now I have to lie in it.” This sounds like a double whammy: first, some personal guiding principle or belief system (acting as self-protection) steers you away from love and career options that drew your interest. Then, after the fact, painfully authoritative self-criticism arises: “Well, guess you messed that up!” Hardly consoling or self-supporting. There is some kind of internalized “voice” in your psyche that, I think it’s safe to say, is not always your friend.

The good news is you are still young enough to make something of all this. It may be later in the game than earlier, but the game is not over. Many find that, by treating time as the scarce resource it is, one can “pack in” more life experience in any given period than originally supposed.

So perhaps the first question I would ask, were we sitting in the same room, would be, “Whose voice is that?” None of our beliefs or habits of choice happen in a vacuum. We learn them, acquire them like a language. This leads back to what we absorbed, explicitly or implicitly, in our upbringing. There is where a good-enough therapist can be invaluable in understanding our own formation, and what options remain that we haven’t foreseen.

The bad news here is, alas, time is irreplaceable. I sometimes think of time as the currency of the spirit. Any one of us has only a limited amount to “spend.” If time is a river, it does in our finitude eventually run dry. The mournful tone of your letter, then, is appropriate to your sadness over losses of opportunity. A grieving may need to take place in order for something to rise from the ashes. For rebirth is always part of the life cycle, after feelings of loss are given their time and space.

Know you are not alone in this. I can relate, though I’m about 10 years younger than you; I threw away so much of my young adulthood, before entering recovery as approaching middle age woke me up. A middle-aged friend of mine recently had a very minor stroke. While “minor,” it understandably jolted him, since he realized just how vulnerable we are, especially since “we never think these things can happen to us.” This may also indicate, in your case, a need for a “death” of old ideas, which no longer serve you, and allowing a space for sadness without bashing yourself over the head for being humanly unaware of what motivated some of your decisions.

The good news is you are still young enough to make something of all this. It may be later in the game than earlier, but the game is not over. Many find that, by treating time as the scarce resource it is, one can “pack in” more life experience in any given period than originally supposed. One silver lining of age is we are a little wiser and world-weary than before, and often know what not to do; the learning curve is often not as steep as when indulged in the privileges of youth. The urgency of spending one’s precious time wisely can, too, stimulate our mental capacities in ways we hadn’t foreseen.

My suggestion to get some help with all this, given the depth and intensity of the emotions at work here. It would likely assist you to find empathic illumination of whatever self-protections and/or fears have protected you and prevented you from apparent risk. Now that you see the cost, why not make good use of what you still have left “on deposit”? My only strong suggestion is you not do so alone. Finding another human being who deeply understands and supports your process, while also illuminating your potential for expansion, may be of invaluable benefit indeed.

Thanks for writing, and warmest good wishes to you.

Darren

Darren Haber
Darren Haber, PsyD, MFT is a psychotherapist specializing in treating alcoholism and drug addiction as well as co-occurring issues such as anxiety, depression, relationship concerns, secondary addictions (especially sex addiction), and trauma (both single-incident and repetitive). He works in a variety of modalities, primarily cognitive behavioral, spiritual/recovery-based, and psychodynamic. He is certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, and continues to receive psychodynamic training in treating relational trauma, including emotional abuse/neglect and physical and sexual abuse.
  • 5 comments
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  • Andrew

    Andrew

    February 6th, 2017 at 11:28 AM

    Could you possibly find something in your life that could be meaningful to you, maybe to help you see that those regrets while hurtful do not necessarily have to frame the rest of your life? I am thinking of something spiritual that could perhaps show you that there was a reason behind these decisions, that you are not at fault for the mistakes nor do you have to continue to let only those things define you? I don’t know maybe I am reaching a little but you have too many good years hopefully left than to always spend it dwelling on the past.

  • mara

    mara

    February 8th, 2017 at 11:48 AM

    I hope that this doesn’t make you feel belittled but there is never any going back and changing he past so why not instead focus on what the future could hold for you? There is nothing that you can do to go back in time, so instead of regret why not instead try to look at it as what you have learned and then move forward from there

  • Sam

    Sam

    February 13th, 2017 at 1:43 AM

    First of all, its not your fault. Life deals is a certain set of circumstances and I deeply believe we do our best to make the right choice for us at that time. Even though it may look different from afar, give yourself credit for making the choices you did. Life is increasingly difficult for many and you are not alone in your despair. I wish I could sit with you & chat. Heartfelt wishes to you

  • John

    John

    February 21st, 2017 at 3:53 PM

    Having read your short regret story, I can only say I understand. I am 73 and full of regrets regarding the decisions I have made in my life. At 70 my health turned bad in man respects, actually trapping me in a marriage decision I made in a moment of extreme weakness. At present I am am waiting for foot surgery to properly heal. I have been in the hospital 26 times in the last 30 months so life has not been easy. I am in a sexless relationship with a Chinese woman half my age. She was not always this way but now is anti-sexual…intercourse hurts her though doctors says she is fine…oral is dirty cause “you pee down there.” Even a hand in not practical because it tires her muscles. I write this to allow you to know others have made bad decisions and now live with them. At 73, I think my life is over and there is nobody to be with. My children have abandoned me and I do not have one friend in the vicinity. I am afraid and alone. The best to you.

  • Karen

    Karen

    December 30th, 2017 at 5:46 PM

    Hi, I just found this by searching “profound regret.” I’ve just made a career decision I knew was wrong for me, but that I was bullied into by a family member who (after I made the decision) proceeded to not care about its effect on me. I’m profoundly sad. I’ve not always made perfect decisions, but they were always the “best I could do with the information I had at the time.” Or, I have gone through times of “bad luck”, which I handle with a certain calm. This one was different, I think because I KNOW I made a wrong decision that can’t be reversed, and I can’t stop crying. I cry at my measly job, on the street, in the grocery store, at home. This letter didn’t solve my problem, but at least I don’t feel so alone. Thanks for that.

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