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Wrestling with Regret

Wrestling with Regret
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By Nina Malkin

“It’s like a stone in my soul, a nagging ache that won’t go away.” That’s how Dave Greene* describes living with the knowledge of his greatest indiscretion: More than a decade ago, he had a brief affair. Dave never told his wife and, sadly, she recently passed away. “I did a terrible thing, and made it worse by dishonesty,” says Dave, 58, who is tortured by the notion that if he hadn’t cheated, his wife might still be alive.

Such profound regret may be illogical, but that doesn’t make it any less agonizing. And while Frank Sinatra sang that his were “too few to mention,” many of us reach the mid-century mark wrestling with this most unsavory of emotions.

“Regret is the ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda’ you experience when you cannot let go of something you did or said—or didn’t do or say,” explains Southern California psychotherapist Tina Tessina, Ph.D. (www.tinatessina.com), author of It Ends With You: Grow Up and Out of Dysfunction. “It can build up over the years, so that by the time you reach midlife the pile is high enough to impede your progress.”

Believe it or not, some of us subconsciously cling to regret, because beating yourself up can feel like much-deserved penance. But bottom line, if you can’t get free of your past, you’ll cheat yourself out of the rewarding present and future that you (yes, you) deserve.

Deal with Wrongdoing

To err is fundamentally human, so if you’ve betrayed a spouse, been unscrupulous in business or otherwise behaved poorly, don’t let it plague the rest of your life. If possible, come clean, apologize and atone—if you’re sincere, you’ll hopefully be forgiven. If the person you wronged is no longer in your life, discuss what you did with others—in therapy, a church group, or simply with friends. Getting it out of your system may put your act in perspective, and will certainly be a huge load off. Dave, for example, is working out his issues in grief counseling.

As you seek the forgiveness of others, it’s equally important to forgive yourself. Doing so doesn’t mean that you condone your action; it means that you accept it—a crucial distinction. Learning from mistakes and resolving not to repeat them is far more productive than wallowing in regret. Truly forgive yourself and you’ll break the tape loop that keeps replaying your transgression. Once free, when you do think about what happened, you’ll feel less anger and shame.

Chart a New Course

“I come from a big family and always assumed I’d have kids,” says Kate O’Connor*, 52. “But I was very career focused when I was younger, and married late.” Although Kate and her husband tried to become pregnant, it didn’t happen—and today she admits, “I regret being so selfish; it cost me a family of my own.”

Few people reach age 50 having accomplished everything on their agenda. Perhaps you let “the one” get away, didn’t manage to travel the world or went for the sure-thing profession rather than follow your creative muse. While it’s hardly uncommon to find yourself at midlife ruing a road not taken, it serves nothing to stew in disappointment. Instead, take steps toward satisfying those unrequited goals, be they personal or professional.

“As a mature adult, you have the opportunity to focus on living the life you always wanted to live, tempered by the wisdom you have gained through your experiences,” Tessina points out. “Up to this point, your life may have been centered around other peoples’ wants and the demands of work, home, and family. Although those responsibilities may continue, now you should have more time for you.”

View disappointment through the lens of perspective. Since having kids is off the table for Kate, she maintains a strong relationship with her nieces and nephews, and volunteers at a day-care center to satisfy her maternal instincts. Your first love may be unattainable (you did try to locate him/her through social media, right?), but surely there are others who possess those qualities you appreciated—so put yourself out there and date. Making art is about the pleasure of the process, not whether or not the result is a hit with the public. If you yearn to paint, write, make music, go for it; take a class if you’re not sure where to start.

“It’s never too late to be who you might have been,” says Tessina. “Believe that truth, explore within and you’ll move towards making your dreams a reality.”

* Names have been changed.

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An all-around wordsmith, Nina Malkin is a journalist, novelist, copywriter and memoirist. She’s also an avid collector of lovely things from eras past—read her musings at http://www.vintagevirna.blogspot.com/