Relentless regret is often felt by survivors of childhood trauma. Particularly after we have managed to distance ourselves from the source of our pain, we get into get stuck in rumination loops of – if only I had or I shouldn’t have. We wish we had done things differently and rue wasted time and effort maintaining dysfunctional relationships in our family of origin.
Our regrets are designated into two buckets: disgust/anger at ourselves for what we did and disappointment in ourselves for what we didn’t do. We waste time, ruefully, wishing we could undo the not-so-great choices we made.
Like many who desperately wanted to escape from the abuse at home, I jumped into a disastrous relationship. This only added to our cup of woes. For years I regretted my impulsive decision, but not anymore.
German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche succinctly puts regret into perspective:
“Every decision you’ve made is the best and only decision you could’ve made at the time with the information you had and the state of mind you were in. And every condition of life that either these decisions led to or that are fundamental to life in general, you have no control over and cannot change”
We have to accept the unsavory truth, bad things happened, and in extenuating circumstances, we survived the best we could. Moreover, one cannot ever change the past into something else, it is over.
Regret Keeps Us Stuck
Regret is a negative emotional state of self-blame and shame. It can keep us stuck in endless scenarios of having acted differently and the potential positive outcomes. However, wallowing in regret is a pointless endeavor.
Furthermore, studies have found that a high level of regret is related to depression, anxiety, insomnia other mental health issues. Most people feel a pang of regretted action (I wish I hadn’t done that!) quickly and intensely, but regret over inaction (I should have done that) lingers longer.
Fallaciously, we survivors of trauma, more so of childhood trauma regret – inaction in face of unrelenting abuse. If only I had fought back, moved away. However, fight-flight is never an option for a helpless child. The best survival response is freezing and/or fawning.
We had to ignore, tolerate, turn a blind eye, comply, placate, and accommodate to avoid the anger and rejection of our caregivers. Sad to say, we were in no position to make any choice. Instinctively, we adapted to the situation to ensure our safety and survival. We did what we had to do, there wasn’t another option.
Different Types Of Regrets
Daniel Pink, author of the bestselling book, The Power of Regret: How Looking Backward Moves Us Forward, states that we can use regrets to our advantage to better our lives.
According to Pink, there are four core categories of human regret:
1) Foundation Regrets
Foundation regrets are about stability: finances, health, education, and career. For example, overspending and then being broke, not maintaining a healthy diet and subsequently suffering from poor health, or choosing a career just because your parents wanted you to.
2) Boldness Regrets
Boldness regrets are about ‘if only I’d taken the chance.’ Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon made the bold decision to quit his job and start Amazon. He stated, “I don’t want to be 80 years old thinking back over my life and cataloging a bunch of major regrets.”
3) Moral Regrets
Moral regrets often leave us feeling guilty and ashamed. We took the low road, subsequently causing hurt and pain to others. We cheated on a spouse, neglected our kids, did not keep our promises, or betrayed those closest to us.
4) Connection Regrets
Connection regrets are about losing touch with somebody in your life or when there’s been a schism it’s a slow kind of drift.
Pink explains how “the negative emotion of regret” can be turned into “a positive instrument for improving your life.”
However, he cautions excessive regret can be “dangerous, sometimes devastating.” It can keep us stuck which could lead to long-lasting depression.
Some Regrets I Have To Live With
My biggest regret was acting I was not affected by the ongoing abuse. I pretended I was okay. I put on a happy front, I thought I was strong by repressing my emotions and pretending as if nothing got to me.
Sadly, that was not true. Inside, I was slowly disintegrating.
The burden of stoically taking on responsibilities that were not mine, being an empathetic listener, and not expressing my needs only led to me being taken for granted. This slowly fueled bitter feelings of resentment within me.
I hated myself for being such a spineless pushover. My scoliosis was the manifestation of my painful reality – my spine collapsed under the burden of inappropriate responsibilities.
It was only after I developed scoliosis and my family ignored my condition. I realized these shit-heads don’t give a damn about me.
Anger and Sadness
I was angry with myself for trusting more than I was angry with them for their betrayal. My vain hope of expecting care and support when they had shown time and time again that they did not care was sheer stupidity.
But it was too late, the damage was done. I felt I was a prisoner of my circumstances, there was no escape. So, like a caged animal I continued to pander to their whims and vanities.
In my deepest despair, I turned to books for solace. It was Scot Peck’s book, The Road Less Traveled that saved me from succumbing to the hopelessness of my situation and committing suicide.
If I hadn’t passively accepted being the scapegoat, maybe my life would’ve been different or better. I will never know. Nevertheless, I’ve slowly begun accepting I did my best, given the oppressive situation.
Regret, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Amor Fati
One of Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophical ideas was the concept called amor fati (translated from Latin as ‘a love of one’s fate’, or enthusiastic acceptance of everything that has happened in one’s life). Amor fati doesn’t seek to erase anything of the past, but rather accept it, the good and the bad, and ugly with all-embracing equanimity and gratitude.
We recognize that things really could not have been otherwise, because everything we are and have done is bound closely together in a web of consequences that began with our birth – and which we are powerless to alter at will.
This helps us put things into perspective and stop brooding destructively, hoping that things could have been otherwise.
Acceptance and Self-Compassion
Overcoming regret entails having acceptance, and self-compassion. Given the situation and the resources we had, it really wasn’t realistically possible for a vulnerable child to have chosen differently.
Grieve for that little innocent helpless child who survived all alone. How brave she was to make it through that ordeal.
Let the lessons of the past teach you to make better decisions in the future. When the past haunts you accept responsibility and understand you cannot change.
As the inspirational author, Maya Angelou, said, “when you know better, you do better.”
Dealing With Regret For Scapegoat Survivors Of Narcissistic Abuse
Regret Minimization Framework
Having regrets is a fact of life. No matter what choices we make, there will always be some choices we may regret in hindsight. All one can do is identify the cause of our regret, and deeply contemplate how one can avoid it in the future. Then let it go.
Instead of, indulging in self-flagellation we should use our feelings of regret as a guidepost to point in the direction we want to go.
Create your own personal Regret Minimization Framework (RMF). Visualizing yourself in the future, at an old age, and imagine the regrets of not taking the chance versus taking the chance and failing. Having this mental model can help you take action, make hard decisions, and lead a life in line with your goals and dreams.
Retrospectively speaking, I know I’ve made terrible choices and awful mistakes throughout my life, but every one of them has helped mold me into the person I’ve become and set me on the path where I am now. So I’ve stopped regretting any of the things I did. I did my best and have lived to tell my tale.
Image Source: Pixabay
No Regrets: A Ten-Step Program for Living in the Present and Leaving the Past –
Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda: Overcoming Regrets, Mistakes, and Missed Opportunities –
Stop Overthinking: 23 Techniques to Relieve Stress, Stop Negative Spirals, Declutter Your Mind, and Focus on the Present (The Path to Calm) –