Living with Regrets

Rev. Sheri Heller, LCSW

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We’ve all had the misfortune of lamenting ad nauseam over misgivings that can range from something relatively innocuous such as forgetting an anniversary to the gravity of having caused deliberate harm. Whatever the origin, fixating into perpetuity over a blunder, a mistake or a perceived cardinal sin is a unique sort of self persecution. Generating variable storylines as to how it could have, would have, should have been can allow us to deflect from feelings of helplessness and regret. An illusory locus of control may ensue as we meticulously map out endless solutions to correcting past wrongs.

When we are unable to accept that the past is gone and can’t be undone, holding on to repentance, and regurgitating the same terrain for months, even years on end is a common fate. Indeed as a clinician and as a therapy patient, I am very familiar with this trend.

With a trusted witness present, ruminating over our transgressions and mulling over what can’t be changed makes us feel as if we have agency over troubling memories and circumstances.

Ironically this neurotic process of regurgitation is a circuitous path to acceptance. It is also a possible trajectory towards establishing intractable values and steadfast ethical behavior. After all, if there is to be any sort of restitution, learning from one's mistakes is the most sincere form of atonement. We can only try to do better going forward.

The simple act of admitting fault and willingly owning up to one’s actions goes a long way in rectifying harm. Taking the high road and humbly examining one’s part in any debacle no matter how big or small can release oneself and those involved from carrying unnecessary distress.

Although we cannot undo what’s been done, we can certainly offer redress and accountability. In fact, for folks engaged in the twelve-step tradition of recovery making amends is crucial to healing and growth.

Step nine of the twelve step path affirms, “Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.”

Embodied in this step is the willingness to take full responsibility for one's past and current actions. However, healing one's guilt and shame is not to be done at the expense of another’s welfare. Making amends should ideally be a reparative gesture for the one on the receiving end of misconduct. If the forgiveness of self results from this act of contrition, all the better.

Of course, there are extenuating conditions in which one’s urgent desperation to offer restitution can obscure the needs of the other. For instance, if too much time has elapsed, or the recipient is too fragile or simply not interested in reparation it is intrusive to require they receive an apology. Doing so only serves to exacerbate an already charged situation.

Similarly, when regret is mired in a paradoxical predicament, whereby one’s repentance presents detrimental consequences, we are challenged to simply endure emotional ambivalence and live with uncertainty. We must come to accept not all things can be resolved.

This was a harsh reality I encountered when my mother became homeless.

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Schizophrenia coupled with narcissistic traits makes for a lethal combination. Tragically this was my mother’s plight, which in turn made it mine as well. My immersion in extensive complex trauma therapy prompted milestones and stability, but my mother’s refusal to engage in treatment and supervised housing ceaselessly generated turbulence. As throughout childhood, eviction notices and decompensation punctuated my adult existence. I felt trapped, yet beholden.

A heartrending meeting with my mother and her caseworker in the shelter system eventually led to my dissolving all ties. Although I finally found the strength to stipulate that her continued involvement in my life necessitated compliance with treatment recommendations, this agreement was short-lived. It was then that I hit my saturation point.

Choosing to break free from my mother was a pivotal choice, one which catalyzed a dark trajectory of healing and growth. This ending was also fraught with guilt. Nevertheless, after many years of separation and continuous efforts to recover from an extensive history of child abuse and subsequent traumas, I ultimately discovered that the severance of my connection to my mother allowed me to thrive like never before. I was no longer trapped by concealed prohibitions that dulled my innate potentials and desires. I reclaimed my right to exist for myself.

Nonetheless irrespective of how impossible the feat is, I am left to accept that I could not be the daughter my mother sought. Nor could she be the mother I needed. Clarity assures me that attempting to oblige my mother’s voracious demands meant sacrificing my own mental health and aspirations. I know this with conviction. Still, there will always be regret. The path of acceptance does not always consider logic.

American mythologist and author Joseph Campbell wrote, “The first step to the knowledge of the wonder and mystery of life is the recognition of the monstrous nature of the earthly human realm as well as its glory, the realization that this is just how it is and that it cannot and will not be changed. Those who think they know how the universe could have been had they created it, without pain, without sorrow, without time, without death, are unfit for illumination.”

Indeed, acceptance of regrets requires us to come to terms with how things are, not how we wish them to be. We are powerless to the monstrous nature of the earthly human realm which Campbell describes and although it is an instinctive impulse to thwart pain, it is futile to resist this truth. In fact, it keeps one from moving forward.

My experience has shown me that succumbing to the reality of life’s adversities entails a process referred to as complicated bereavement. A crucial stage in recovery for survivors of complex trauma, complicated bereavement assists with coming to terms with what is reparable and what is not so that acceptance can unfold. By constructively reframing a history of one’s life, shortcomings, and one’s actions, the past can be mourned and parsed out from the present.

It is from this place of consciousness that we realize that resisting loneliness, fear, powerlessness, and myriad forms of suffering, prevents us from staying open to and accepting of all that life contains. Accessing the humility needed to analyze our regretful choices can revise a perspective steeped in penance to that which views regrets as lessons towards growth. Undoubtedly, it is this crowning achievement where we remain open to evolving emotionally and spiritually that we actualize the ultimate form of restitution.

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As a survivor (and thriver) of complex trauma and a seasoned therapist specializing in treating complex trauma, narcissistic abuse syndrome and addictions, I am intent on creating content that affords informative insight, hope and healing from psychological disorders. I aim for my creative content to assist readers with tapping into the resiliency of the human condition while recognizing the countless challenges of being human.

New York City, NY
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