As we enter the holiday season, I experience an unmistakable pattern in my practice that usually becomes most prominent at this time of year when people start taking stock of the year and (on a larger scale) of their entire life. One of the most corrosive thought patterns and emotions that people fall into is remorse and regret about lost opportunities or poor decisions from the past. These feelings may have something to do with sex or not, but the common theme is one of loss, particularly the loss of youth. I mention youth because we are most likely to feel regretful when we feel we don’t have a second chance or do-over, and second chances are abundant in youth. Therefore, remorse and regret are often as much to do with the mourning of youth as it is with the concrete details of missed opportunities.
Everyone has regrets at times, but it becomes problematic when they become obsessive, devolving into unhelpful rumination, bitterness, possibly vindictiveness, and at worst, destructive “acting out” behaviors. In some ways, and counterintuitively, bitterness and disappointment can sometimes feel “addictive” in the sense that they can provide a sense of pleasure and power from being a martyr or victim. Yes, victimhood can be and sometimes is used as currency. (Note, I am not invalidating victimization, but simply stating that dwelling on such can provide secondary benefits for some people). And cultivating anger feels both more defensive and empowering than truly facing sadness and vulnerability.
When faced with such “existential challenges,” I find it helpful to envision the dual control model that I have discussed in previous articles. Briefly, the dual control model (of sexuality) posits that our behavior is motivated by both positive (seeking pleasure) and negative (avoiding pain) forces. We cannot truly overcome our anxiety or ambivalence about a situation simply by decreasing the negative (fear, worry), but we need to also make contact with the positive (what it is that we expect to find pleasurable about the experience). The dual control model, as far as I know, was developed as a way of conceptualizing sexual arousal, but I find it applicable on a more, global scale to explain most other aspects of human behavior as well.
Using this lens, extended rumination about remorse and regret obviously falls into the negative column. But most importantly, and the main thesis of this article, we cannot get out of the negative state simply by trying to minimize it. We need to make contact with the positive in order to balance things out. More specifically, we may try to reason our way out of remorse or regret, but that won’t actually do much aside from perhaps reducing its intensity. Most likely, though as research indicates, focusing too much on one emotion only exacerbates it further. For example, the field of psychology once believed that therapies such as primal scream or punching a dummy or something like that would help to “get the anger out,” but now we know that amplifying anger only makes us more, rather than less, angry. Same thing with other emotions, such as regret. The more we think about regretful things, the more regretful we become.
Instead, we need to counter the regret with its antithesis– namely gratitude. When we are stuck in regret, I compare it to a horse with blinders, only seeing a narrow slice of reality. In this state, everything may tend to seem more gray and bleak, and then we may spiral further downward through the process of confirmation bias, in which we only notice other bleak things that confirm our worldview. In this way, normal sadness and regret may slide into deeper depression. If we struggle to reason our way out of the funk, we are still only working with the reality that we see through our blinders, and indeed, we only tighten the blinders to our face. However, by making contact with gratitude, we immediately open up or vision to a fuller 180 degree panorama, allowing ourselves to see a more comprehensive, balanced view of the situation.
To start out, we need to be able to identify things we have to feel grateful about. It’s fairly simple in theory, but often people may find it harder to do in practice. This is because, as humans, we are fairly adaptable and easily come to expect and take for granted the things we do have. But in reality we are entitled to nothing in life; everything we have is a blessing. The shelter over our head, the food we eat, the clothes on our back. If those things feel too difficult to feel grateful about, I have audio tapes that I provide my clients that help them to cultivate a deeper internal sense of gratitude through meditation and guided visualizations, etc.
When it comes down to it, we can never guarantee that we can avoid regret. We are always making decisions based on limited information. And the “rightness” of the decision often bears little correlation to its outcome. For example, a decision that seems correct based on the limited information provided may turn out wrong. We may make a wrong decision that turns out great. We may make a decision that seems great in the short term, but proves disastrous in the long-term. Or we make a decision that initially seems disastrous, but opens up doors we never even imagined in the long-run. Life is unpredictable and we can’t control it. We can only do our best. But what we can control, and what we should all try to cultivate, is to practice a daily routine of mindful gratitude. It’s the little sense of joy we can carry with us and no one can take away, and equally important, it is independent from any outside influence or events. It’s the mental health equivalent of eating an apple a day and there’s no better time to start practicing than right now, over the holidays.