In “My Way,” the classic song about reflecting on life in your later years, Frank Sinatra sang, “Regrets? I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mentionÉ”
For a lot of people, however, their lives aren’t about having too few regrets, but rather too many. By definition, regret is a feeling of sadness or disappointment about past choicesÑthings that are beyond one’s ability to fix or make right. But regrets can lead to depression, relationship problems, and other complications.
And perhaps nowhere are regrets more acutely felt than in families, where long-held resentments, grudges, and misunderstandings can fester for years, only making sad situations that much sadder. With the arrival of a new year, this may be a good time to examine your regrets or your feelings about choices made by loved ones.
Barbara Moscowitz, MSW, LICSW, associate director of education and support with the Dementia Caregiver Support Program at Massachusetts General Hospital, finds that regrets and their accompanying emotions often come to the foreground during times of trouble. “When I speak with older adults and their family, often during a moment of crisis, it is not unusual for all of the memories, ghosts, secrets, promises, disappointments and wishes to surface,” she says.
Context Is Key
Moscowitz suggests that if an older adult can be helped to speak with his or her family, perhaps with assistance from a therapist, the questions to ask about regrets are the circumstances surrounding those decisions.
“Were you unable to leave a bad marriage because you had no family or financial means to care for your children? Were you unable to pursue a career or attend college, because your husband was in the army. And when you were younger there were different expectations of women. Was a young man unable to fulfill a dream of going to college and had to settle for a job in business to earn a living? If we stretch the ‘regret’ beyond the event or moment and put it in the context of why and how it occurred some relief often follows,” she says. “There isn’t necessarily joy as a result, but we hope one can understand that the complex and important issues of life led to the decision that had to be made. The question to answer is ‘Did I do the best I could at that time?’”
Dealing with your own regrettable choices or coping with the choices made by others can’t be done in isolation. Moscowitz says the path toward healing and understanding starts by looking at the big picture of your family and your life.
“When thinking about older adults and their adult children, it’s imperative to understand the context of their family life, their unique history and circumstances in which they live,” she explains. “It’s neither possible nor realistic to analyze disappointment, anger, regrets or missed opportunities without understanding the moments as experienced through the lens of an individual and family. Who is this family? What are their cultural and religious beliefs? What are the family legacies, promises, relationships, feuds, and rivalries?”
By focusing only on a specific choice and its aftermath, while ignoring all the factors that may have influenced that choice, we do a disservice to the person who has regretted that decision. By expressing understanding and empathy, we can often ease the emotional burden regrets place on people who wish they could change the past.
Dealing with Regrets
WHAT YOU CAN DO
- Make a list of some regrets that nag at you and think about why you made the decisions you did, making sure to consider all the circumstances in your life at the time. Be willing to forgive yourself and make amends with those you may have hurt.
- Be open to talking with loved ones and others who express interest in resolving old conflicts.
- Accept people at their word if they forgive you.
- Learn from your mistakes and your successes. Really think about the choices you’ve made and what you would or wouldn’t do differently now that you have the benefit of hindsight.
You know logically that dwelling on past failures, disappointments, and hurts isn’t healthy. You’ve probably heard others advise you not to live in the past, and you may have given that same advice to people you care about. Certainly, as we acquire more years, more interactions, and more decisions, we’re likely to collect a few regrets along the way, too.
“We are all fallible, complex individuals, and it’s unlikely that anyone, however compassionate and thoughtful, can live a full life without many regrets and hurtful moments,” Moscowitz says.
She adds that many difficult issues may certainly surface or “loom large” in later life as one feels more vulnerable, must make significant life decisions, and is acutely aware of mortality.
Moscowitz suggests that if you made choices that were hurtful, take some time to think about what was going on when you made the decision.
“Was the hurtful or destructive result intentional or accidental? Were you faced with a situation that was impossible to resolve and had painful consequences? It’s important to acknowledge that while there is pain and sadness with the outcome, you did not intend to hurt anyone,” she says. “If, on the other hand, you acted harshly and without compassion, there is always time to apologize. An apology represents an acknowledgment of a regrettable action; one owns responsibility and expresses regret.”
She adds that it is always important, however, to be prepared that the recipient of the apology may not respond as we wish. “One must decide if the apology, in writing or in person, will provide relief,” she says.
Keep in mind also that some of the choices you make at a particular time in your life may have been “right” for you at the time. You may regret, for example, that you didn’t start saving for retirement when you were younger. Instead, you used your discretionary money to travel before you settled down to raise a family. While it would be helpful to have built up your savings sooner, as a young person it was also important to see other places and have varied experiences, too. Likewise, you may regret divorcing your spouse when your kids were still young. But if the circumstances in the marriage were such that family life would have been more miserable by not divorcing, then accept that you made the right decision at the time.
Never forget that many times we must choose the “lesser of two evils,” and that in some situations, any choice can lead to pain or disappointment. Making the best of a bad situation shouldn’t be regretted, but rather respected as a wise decision.
It’s About Forgiveness
In the end, dealing with regret is usually about forgiving others and forgiving yourself, Moscowitz says. If you have apologized to people you feel you hurt or you have tried to resolve lingering issues like repaying a loan, then allow yourself to move forward with a clearer conscience.
“The most important recommendation for moving forward and becoming ‘unstuck’ is to acknowledge the event and discuss it with good listeners,” Moscowitz says. “Apologize if possible, and allow everyone involved to be heard.”
A sensitive person can’t always let regrets disappear completely, but by reminding yourself that you have done your best to “make up” for regrettable decisions, some of the sting should subside. Remember that many decisions that led to hurt or disappointment were made out of necessity.
After all, as Sinatra sang in his signature song, “I did what I had to do, and saw it through without exemption.”
In simpler terms: Give yourself a break and don’t let regrets hold you back.