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 […]