On Regret and Loss: The Challenges of Moving Forward

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One of the more difficult emotions to deal with is regret. The sense of having lost something, or done things we wish we had never done. Regret instils in us a harsh reality: that we cannot undo the past. It forces us to face the passage of time, the loss of what once was or could have been. It is a feeling that merges, often, with guilt or anger or despair. Regret can be difficult to experience because of how debilitating it can seem. Regret can leave a person feeling hopeless — that too much has gone wrong or too much precious time has been wasted to ever change things now.

Regret is so agonising because it is often our own personal failures looking back at us, forcing us to comprehend the past from the vantage point of the future: it lets us look back on ourselves from a place of knowing, and that knowing bites painfully into us as we realise what went wrong or what we might’ve done instead.

Regret and loss are common companions. They can come from the same source, mingling with one another, creating a truly depressing emotional world. These emotions often signal that something has gone wrong, and they tend to crop up when we’re in a vulnerable state: ones of loss, or shame, or guilt. When we’ve lost a relationship with someone, or when we feel we’ve chosen the wrong career path, or we look back and realise we’ve never really made a any real start at accomplishing our ‘dream’ that has been so-very-essential to us since childhood.

Regret, fundamentally, is something to be learned from. The power we have over our regrets is how we respond to them. We can either wallow in them, beaten down into submission where we lament the “could haves” and “should haves” over and over again until we’re emotionally depleted. Or we chose to treat the sensations as a lesson and learn from the mistakes and losses in our pasts. Regret cannot wholly consume us: if we allow it to do so, we will likely spend a significant amount of time feeling terrible, self-abasing and ashamed; and then we’re very likely, at some point, to come to regret spending so much time feeling that way.

Regret can be a sinkhole. We can stumble into it, as we are looking over our past, and find ourselves struggling to escape it. We don’t learn from it and apply the lessons to our current states or selfs: we fall deeper and deeper into that world of anger and hurt. We might feel humiliated, despondent or frustrated. We construct a cataclysmic sense of defeat: we have wasted too much time, we’ll never have a love or friend like that again. And these intense judgements throw fuel onto the fire, creating an inferno of pain and doubt. If we fall too deeply into that pit, we end up surrounded by negative thoughts and feelings. We forget to live in the present as we spend too much time cursing who were were and what we did in the past. An important stage in growing as a person is looking back on ourselves and understanding where we were wrong, or what we did wrong, and then learning from those mistakes, applying the lessons to future situations, and choosing to approach similar experiences in a different healthier manner.

Considering this, having a sense of regret can be connected to personal growth. If we never changed, we would never look back into our own biographies and cringe and lament some of what we did. If we feel that we wasted time, we learn from the ill-focused choices and make better use of our lives following the realisation. One of the dangers of stagnation is the miserable routine of the ‘false start’. For example, a person feels lacking or frustrated in their current lifestyle, they vow to change, yet they never do the long, tough work to consistently challenge themselves, to unlearn negative traits or habits, and to reinforce positive ones.

Such a person may in fact surrender their efforts as soon as things don’t seem to be going smoothly. They then come back to the same place, maybe next New Years when resolutions are sworn, or on their next birthday when they feel another pang of agedness. They may make the same promises, swear the same vows. But they never advance beyond the ‘swearing’. Year in and year out. This person might eventually become overwhelmed with regret and self-loathing. They hate themselves for ‘never getting things in order’ and this chronic sense of regret, of time wasted and lost, is part of what continually keeps them entrenched in that dynamic. They are undermined by their own sense of failure.

Idealization is another problem that feeds the regret-cycle. We may regret the idea of something more than we necessarily regret what was lost or what we never had. Someone may mourn the loss of a relationship, but in the process of that loss, they idealize the person and the past, constructing a powerful romantic-melancholic fantasy that no one could fulfil; not even the person they’ve separated from. Someone may wish they had made ‘more’ of their youth, and in doing so, imagine hundreds of incredible fantasy experiences. These experiences have a gilded glimmer in their mind’s-eye, one that does not reflect, truly, how these experiences would manifest in reality. Many of them might genuinely have been dull and unpleasant, but in the throes of regret, they all look so tantalizingly perfect. It’s important to learn to not become encased in the loss of what-was, especially when those are more imaginative or romanticised than necessarily true. Regret can be a powerful alternator in our life-course; it can also be a deadly undermining creature.

Regret can keep us locked in stasis. It can block our ability to see the ‘here and now’ in our lives. We live with shame or pain through the past. Wishing to change what has already happened. Regret, in one sense, is a signal to change what we were doing before: it is best observed as a form of life lesson and not, necessarily, a punishment for wrongdoing, time-wasting, or messing up. Regret too easily transitions into prolonged self-hatred when used as a tool of judgement. It is no longer just a feeling but instead an identifier as to why we are terrible, foolish, bad or inferior. Too often we berate ourselves and punish ourselves over things that cannot be changed, that cannot be taken back or amended. Time marches ever forward, and no power on Earth can turn it back. We must focus, eventually, on tomorrow after having looked at and learned from yesterday. If not, we remain trapped in casting negativity on our previous selves.

Times of emotional difficulty can intensify regret and guilt-tripping. After the death of a friend of family member we might come to denigrate ourselves for what we could have or should have done for them, we might have ‘saved them’ had we told them not to go driving on that fateful day, or we may bemoan how selfish we were, how we didn’t call them enough, or spend enough time with them. This is a response to loss, a bewilderment at life suddenly taken, and how much more richly we could have spent it with the passed. This is a dangerous line of thought to become ensnared in as it can precipite severe depression and rageful self-denigration. There’s no easy way to accept the loss of a person, but it is important to make choices that are productive- such as meeting close friends for support, or talking to a therapist for informed advice — rather than letting ourselves become overwhelmed with the grief and anger and self-loathing judgements.

Another principal to learning from regrets is the harshness of reality: we cannot be equal to everyone in our lives, we cannot care for someone to the neglect of our own needs, we cannot experience everything, travel everywhere, accomplish everything we dream or aspire too. The primary idea to tackling regrets is to accept what has been lost, what has been done, and to begin implementing changes when working towards the future. The acceptance is essential, but difficult. It is never easy, regardless what our sense of regret is stemming from. It can be a slow burn, months upon months. We seldom feel regret over the trivial in life. It’s a feeling born out of substantial losses: trust and love, deaths and disasters, years of missed opportunities, or grinding our energies to the limits in a dead end job. The weight of the circumstances that give birth to regret make it such a powerful emotion, they give it its influence in our lives, they act as a gaping hole that can devour us if we should fall into it. Climbing back out can be an internal struggle of herculean proportions, depending on how deeply we’ve fallen in.

Learning from regret is an imperfect process. It cannot become a constant theme in our lives, bemoaning the past and belittling ourselves over past foolishness or selfishness or other failures. Yet there is value in looking back, seeing who we were in previous years and where things might have gone wrong. Observing and learning is an important developmental process, the danger is in becoming enveloped by the darker emotions that looking back can bring to light. Staying too long can trap us in a draining atmosphere, leading to increased frustration and despair. The value of looking back is understanding and learning from our history, if we’re not learning we’re avoiding the present to mourn or seethe over what can never be undone. At this point, reflection stops becoming advantageous and instead becomes limiting.

The challenge of regret is finding the balance between the lesson and the hindering emotion.

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