How do I deal with intense regrets?
May 19, 2020 4:53 AM   Subscribe

For the past decade I have been quite depressed and consumed with regrets, which has prevented me living my life fully. Up until 18, I was academically bright but I developed social anxiety and depression and things went downhill from there. The past decade has seen a lot of progress for me (in context), but I cannot stop beating myself up for it not being enough and for all the "wrong" decisions I made. How do I get myself out of this repetitive loop of ruminating about regrets?

I grew up in an abusive controlling household, but was academically successful until around 18. I wanted to do medicine and be a doctor but at that age I really thought I didn't have the confidence or self esteem so I chose Accounting, as I thought it could be somewhere I could hide and not have to face my fears. Big regret number 1. I am still in an entry level accounts role and find it incredibly boring and feel I have missed out on developing my confidence in a field that might be more challenging but more rewarding and interesting.

Another huge regret is not moving out to live in student halls at university. I am dating someone casually who said that he struggled but when he went to uni he started a long term relationship and he grew and developed in those years even though it was tough. I feel insane jealousy that I didn't experience the same thing and that from 18-26 I was totally isolated, no friends, no partner and no hope. Most importantly and most crushingly, I allowed myself to stay in a toxic abusive environment for another EIGHT years before I moved out. How can I forgive myself my weakness and cowardice when I could have been making friends, maybe having a relationship and learning that the world isn't so bad? I was so so scared but I still do not have compassion for myself.

It breaks my heart and I can't stop thinking about it. I feel like it is a huge flaw and weakness on my part that I didn't have the courage to break the shackles of my upbringing and see a happier future for myself. I suppose I am doing exactly the same thing now.

I recognise that I am feeding this and it's all becoming a self fulfilling prophecy but I honestly don't know how to stop or what's driving me to this. Is it because regretting something that can't be changed is easier than taking action on something that can be, in the present? I don't know. I just feel like I am broken and empty, I am not as whole as other people.

I just have this constant feeling that everything would have been better if I'd chosen another path, even though I rationally know that might not be true.
posted by Sunflower88 to Human Relations (20 answers total) 26 users marked this as a favorite
I feel like this a lot. I feel this way despite the fact that I have a relatively successful career, a happy marriage, and an objectively good life. I share these things not to brag but to point out that when I am feeling low, my depressed brain finds *something* to be ashamed of or regret. The feeling is my brain chemistry stuck in a loop, it is not a correct analysis of the situation.

So for me, tackling the depression is the most useful thing to do. For me it comes in waves. Exercise helps, being outside helps, playing the guitar helps (I am a total beginner). Find the things that keep you busy and help you feel a bit of relief. For me when I am swimming it’s like all my bad feelings are still there but the volume gets turned down on them and I can experience other feelings as well.

Don’t try to talk yourself out of feeling bad. There will be times when those feelings are overwhelming and in those moments I find it best to just sit with them and breathe.

You have experienced some trauma. You might look into Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, which is a type of therapy that could help.
posted by mai at 5:42 AM on May 19, 2020 [5 favorites]

ACT, which Mai mentioned above, would be an excellent tool for you. I started ACT with a self-directed workbook that I still use (Get Out of Your Mind and Into Your Life, Dr. Steven Hayes') before I found a therapist to keep my work going. I also think there's a lot to be said for establishing meditation and mindfulness practices—get yourself into the moment more often, recognize your ruminations for what they are, and with practice and persistence gain experience letting them ebb and flow.

I will say that there are no quick fixes inn these suggestions. When I started therapy, I found that frustrating. But now I'm not than a year into it, and it feels a bit like physical exercise: it's not always easy to feel the differences, but if I go back and read things I wrote last year, wow, yes, I've come a long way.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 5:54 AM on May 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

It's very common for people who've been through trauma, particularly a traumatic upbringing, to blame themselves for what happened to them. "There must have been something terribly wrong with me for my parents to have treated me like that" can be an incredibly compelling narrative when you're trying to make sense of the huge "why" that sits at the centre of a traumatic childhood, even though it's pretty much never true (things like "my parents were people with their own problems who didn't know how to raise children in a healthy way" are much less compelling narratives for the brain to fixate on).

I think most people who grew up this way can also empathise with the feeling of having made choices while we were in that situation that we felt would keep us short-term safe, even if they're not choices that our fully-fledged, self-actualised selves would make or even approve of once we're out of that situation. To me, the choices you made around living and studying once you were no longer a child but still very enmeshed in a bad family system absolutely fall into your category, as as far as I'm concerned they're no more your "fault" than it was your "fault" that you were abused growing up in the first place. You did what you thought would keep you safe at a time when your safety wasn't a given.

The thing that helped me the most was lots of trauma-focused therapy. Even after doing lots of trauma-focused therapy, I still find it hard to shake the narrative that what happened to me growing up could have been better or avoided entirely if I'd just been "good enough" in some nebulous way, even though I know intellectually that that's not true or how it works.

Good luck - this is a long, hard process but it's totally possible to feel a lot better than you do right now, and to get to a place where you don't feel like you have to fixate on or beat yourself up for decisions you made in a context that was very, very different to what your life looks like now.
posted by terretu at 6:04 AM on May 19, 2020 [6 favorites]

This probably isn't entirely mentally healthy but I refuse to acknowledge regret. I used to be like you and it was just so, so hard. I feel for you. Now I look forward. I can change NOTHING about the past, except my reaction to it. Everything I have done I accept as ok. I am where I am supposed to be. I like the serenity prayer and the Desiderata to help remind me. I can't change the past. And I have late diagnosed bipolar so the past includes some shocking finanancial decisions made while hypomanic and decades lost to depression. It is what it is, none of us do life perfectly. There's an awful lot of pressure from society to make the most of our 'one amazing life'. Well I can't manage amazing. Content is what works for me.

I am still a big ruminator and struggle with that (about future things) and one trick that helps when my mind goes there is to recount a really ordinary event in my mind, in great detail. Like I'm explaining a really boring day to someone. It's neutral and boring enough I can drift off to sleep eventually.
posted by kitten magic at 6:19 AM on May 19, 2020 [6 favorites]

The only thing I can say is a heavy +1 is therapy and especially trauma-focused therapy.
posted by KTamas at 6:20 AM on May 19, 2020

Up until 18, I was academically bright but I developed social anxiety and depression

Been there, particularly with depression.

How can I forgive myself my weakness

You can’t, any more than you could forgive yourself for being born with a bad knee. You were born with depression, and as is common it manifested itself in your late teens.

If I could relive my 20s without depression I would do so in a second. There are tons of opportunities that I missed, and I am very angry about it. By I’m not the author of my depression. I was born with it and that’s life.

You’re definitely in therapy territory here.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:25 AM on May 19, 2020 [3 favorites]

I was raised to care a lot about My Potential, and something that helped with this for me was giving up on Living Up to My Potential. Easier said than done, I know. But I've managed to do it to some extent. Instead, I try to convince myself that my goal is to have a life worth living right now — however weird that life looks, however different it is from what I would have planned if I could have done it over. When I can get myself to really believe that, I get less tangled up in this sort of regret.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:57 AM on May 19, 2020 [3 favorites]

I want you to be gentle with yourself, and take the good advice of others, but I also want to thank you for posting this. My partner and I have a daughter who will be 19 in a few weeks; for the past several years, she's been dealing with depression, anxiety, OCD, and gender dysphoria, and she has, for the most part, not been able to participate in treatment. She is not currently in the therapy or on any meds, and, although, she says she wants to get back into therapy, she hasn't been able to take the steps necessary to get started.

She has let all her friendships lapse, and stopped making efforts to meet people. At her worst, she has lived for months not even talking to us if she could avoid it, living almost completely isolated in her room except to come out to use the bathroom and get food when none of the rest of us were likely to be around, like in the middle of the night.

She is creative, intelligent, and (at her best) very kind and empathetic. She has a lot of self-awareness. it is very hard for us to see her hiding her light under a bushel, suffering, being without friends, and missing out on the things that other young people her age are commonly able to do. An added quirk of hers is that she has not even sought connections to other like-minded people on the internet. She is convinced no one will ever accept her as she is, and she is too afraid of that rejection to even take the chance.

As hard as things are for you right now, and as much regret and sadness as you may feel about the past years not being what you would ideally have had them be, I have to tell you that your post gives me hope for our daughter, that although it seems to us that she is stuck in one place, and we can't see how that's going to shift, your experience tells us that it can, even if we have to wait a long time for it.

Maybe it helps to hear me say that, I imagine my daughter being in your position seven or eight years from now, and how much joy it would make me feel to know that, although she spent a long time in a dark, painful place, she doesn't have to spend any more time there. Every step I can imagine her taking, from improving her grooming to wearing clothes that reflect her gender identity to attending a community college class feels glorious. I know, because I've lost years to being ill in the past and because I am now middle aged, that life is surprisingly long, and even if a person gets a late start on the things they want and care most about, or even if they experience an interruption, there is still plenty of time for those things. I think it's harder for young people to see how much time they really have ahead of them.

It's OK to grieve what you missed out on. My daughter, too, will never have the experience of starting college at 18 with a cohort of age-mates, and doing a four-year residential degree. I grieve that, and a lot of other things as well.

But I am going to be happy all day today because you told us how much better things are for you now. I am so glad to know it.


posted by Orlop at 7:17 AM on May 19, 2020 [11 favorites]

Something that's really hard to internalize is that these intense feelings of regret and shame? THAT'S anxiety and depression and trauma. That's not separate, this is all the same ecosystem.

What you do is keep treating it, treat it harder, change methodologies to keep pace with your own development. These pathologies fight back when you try to wrangle them, and you'll often have very intense flares of doubt and fear and a very strong sense it's not worth the effort right as you're about to clear another hurdle.

I'm not going to say that adults don't ever have regrets or second thoughts or even mourn "what could have been" every so often. That's also a thing, it never stops, decade birthdays trigger it in a lot of people, or just life changes. Because there's always going to be forks in the road you didn't take (because you can't take 'em all!), and times you could have been bolder or braver or more psychic or whatever. It's good to learn skills to manage those feelings too because they can really throw you into a tailspin if you're already prone to shame spiraling, but also just know that what you're feeling right now is only about 10% that thing and 90% spiral.

You probably won't find out for a few more years that a huge number of your peers did not have an incredibly healthy productive 20s either, but just know that a whole lot of kids launch into adulthood without the best preparation and support and they do eventually find their way. You're living proof, you're doing it right now! And you have only competed decade 1 of 8 or 9, you have a long life ahead of you with ample opportunities to do lots of the things you decide you want to do along the way.

To that end, I will give you a bit of career advice from a middle-aged perch: you picked one of the careers that values experience, so you've got time to grow and a lot less ageism to deal with as you do. But also, look into the intersection of accounting and technology. There are entire departments of Financial Reporting & Planning in large companies, there's ERP software implmentation and management, there's data science. Go take the Johns Hopkins Coursera course The Data Scientist's Toolbox (which I myself am overdue to finish, as I'm looking at a career pivot), which will give you an introduction to R. That stuff is all a younger (or older/nerdier) person's game, from a management perspective. You don't have to grind away for years to get your charter/certification if the classic accounting career path doesn't appeal to you; you can use that accounting degree as a business/finance degree instead. (Memail me if you want some more specific recommendations.)

But right now is a good time to dig in a little bit more on trauma treatment while you queue up your next adventure. Times are tough and uncertain and it's a good time to build up your support system and tackle some of that stuff that's holding you down.
posted by Lyn Never at 7:41 AM on May 19, 2020 [6 favorites]

To me, regret feels like a yawning chasm in my chest. And it's bottomless... it can extend as vastly and as deeply and as blackly as your mind can conjure...

But this is not a real "thing" per se: it's an emotional (and with the chest-yawning-chasm, perhaps a physiological) reaction to a thought I'm having... that thought of regret.

If I meditate with regret for a bit, I come to understand that it's actually a ball of other emotions: helplessness, embarrassment, fear, sadness, longing, and anger with myself. There's probably more packed in there too. These little threads of emotions make the fabric of "regret" more manageable in terms of understanding what my current needs are *now*.

Because I know that whatever has happened in my past, I cannot change it. And the past is a figment anyway. It's not something I can return to. It properly doesn't exist. "Regret" is something in my mind that only impacts me.

If I need to do reparation work with my regrets, breaking down the regret in a safe, self-compassionate meditative experience can be really fruitful. In addition to letting me think about how I can be a better person, it can also tell me what my needs are and how I can best move forward based on what I've learned. It can create a space where I can accept the past and work on the actual living experience of the present.

I know people somethings think "meditation" is thrown around as a cure-all, but I think "regret" like other forms of mental suffering, can be managed if you sit with it and try to understand it, while also radically accepting who you are now.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 7:50 AM on May 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

The past is gone, but you have the power now to make the most of the present and plan for the future. It’s never too late to address the issues holding you back. You can still have a good life.
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:54 AM on May 19, 2020

How do I deal with intense regrets?

By adopting a new habit: that of reminding yourself, whenever you notice that you're experiencing one of these regrets, that the fact of ruminating about it, rather than the content of the rumination, is the problem you actually need to solve.

Attempting to change things that shouldn't have happened but already have is, as you've been finding out for the last ten years, not ever actually going to work. But noticing now that a problematic rumination habit is playing itself out now gives you an opportunity to introduce and then practice a new habit to link the old one to; and if you take that opportunity attentively and repeatedly, then eventually the old habit will just automatically lead on to the new one instead of chasing its tail in an endless ruminative loop.

We all of us waste tremendous amounts of energy solving the wrong problems by default, because we are all creatures of habit. Noticing that that's what we've been doing is the first step toward using that same energy more constructively.

Note that the name of the game here is not to break the rumination habit. Habits are essentially nothing more than well-practised skills, and skills once acquired take a long time to decay and require very little practice to maintain; so breaking habits is not actually a thing that happens. Deliberately training to create new habits, however, absolutely can be; and so can deliberately triggering those new habits when we notice that doing so would be useful.

The habit I have trained myself to trigger most often whenever I notice that my own thoughts have started chasing their tails around a dark and useless path is to evaluate my immediate physical circumstances, improve them if they need it (am I cold? put on more layers; am I thirsty? drink some water; am I in a filthy kitchen? tidy it up a bit; do I ache? do a bit of stretching, etc) and if there's nothing to be done in that regard, reflect on and appreciate the astonishing good fortune that has led to that being the case. Because when it comes right down to it, immediate physical circumstances are what matters most, even though as humans we do tend to get lost in the maze of plans we make in support of trying to make sure they get and stay acceptable.

Other useful habits include wandering down to the back shed for a bit of drums practice and putting in an hour or two in the garden. But the immediate physical circumstances scan is the one I use most often simply because it requires no supporting materials whatsoever; everything I need to get it done is already right here in me.

Rumination is an insidious fucking thing because it's so intensely distracting. It feels almost impossible to let go of a well established rumination because the only issues that end up ruminated on are those that feel like problems that absolutely must be solved. And the most insidious of all of those problems is, of course, the problem of Why Am I Ruminating Like This In The First Place? That one can tie a body into nasty little knots for weeks at a stretch.

My own answer to that last question is that rumination, like 99% of what I do if I'm honest with myself, is a habit. It's what happens because it's the easiest thing to do, and it's the easiest thing to do because it's what happens... unless and until I make something else happen, which requires effort. But the key thing to realize is that rumination is not at all unique in that regard: that very same pattern applies to every habit.

The good part about this truth is that it applies every bit as strongly to habits that we have deliberately designed and practised into place because we think they'll do us good, as it does to any of the huge collection that all of us accumulate more or less at random as we bounce around in the pinball machine of life.
posted by flabdablet at 8:02 AM on May 19, 2020 [9 favorites]

The other thing I meant to say: you may have to make a little reminder to yourself to respond to these feelings of intense regret with a swell of compassion and kindness for Past You, who was doing the best they could with the hand they were dealt.

A lot of us are prone to cruelty to Past Us, to do that head-smacking "stupid! stupid! stupid!" thing, but that's a response to the intensity of the feelings rather than the truth of the situation. It's not fair, and we wouldn't do it to a friend, and we should try to remember to be better friends to ourselves. Think of that person as someone you're trying to help take care of now.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:12 AM on May 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

On a more practical note, in the moment when anxiety or self-judging is happening I go with humor.

For the past twenty years or so when my brain starts coming up with horribly melodramatic possibilities I immediately say (as melodramatically as possible): "I’M DOOOOOOOOMED!" In the beginning I was doing that several times a day, now it’s almost never.

Right now I’m going after that phenomenon where my brain suddenly presents an awkward memory, causing me to judge myself harshly. My go-to for overzealous judging is the witch trial from Monty Python and the Holy Grail: "HE’S A WITCH! BURN HIM! BURN HIM!" It seems to be working so far.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 8:50 AM on May 19, 2020 [5 favorites]

a swell of compassion and kindness for Past You, who was doing the best they could with the hand they were dealt are you right now, as are we all. Easily overlooked, this point, making it worth a regular reminder.
posted by flabdablet at 9:08 AM on May 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

You were born with depression, and as is common it manifested itself in your late teens.

depression's not like schizophrenia and this is stated with unwarranted assurance. Someone brought up in an "abusive, controlling household" may have inherited certain mental illnesses, sure; we don't know that. We do know they were brought up in an abusive, controlling household, which will leave lasting effects on the healthiest baby ever born; we do know that.

therapy is always nice, except when it isn't, and is certainly indicated here, but no therapist will tell you, OP, that you were just born this way and it just manifested itself eventually. not unless they get to know you a whole lot better than any of us here do. Depression is both heritable and acquirable; depression frequently comes along with a (depressing!) sense that one was somehow born sick or born abnormal; sometimes this is true and then has to be dealt with, but when it's not, it's still easy to make people believe it.

The way you deal with regrets is to do now what you could not do then. You're dating someone, which is an enormous accomplishment with the background you describe--don't look at things that are "normal" and deprecate yourself out of pride for them, or turn it into humiliation because it took you longer than you wish it did. Jealousy of your own partner is tricky but bear in mind that you developed, all on your own, the kind of social skills to attract someone who's had a decade more practice than you did--that's either natural talent or incredibly hard work, or both. Making friends will probably work the same way-- you will probably feel jealous of the friends you start to have, but the more good things you can get into your life (to remember later, even the ones that don't last) the more sandbags you can pile in front of the flood of regrets.

You are in, what, your 30s? you don't have to stay in your dull unfulfilling job. I mean, now is the worst time for everything, so maybe you have to wait another few years, but you won't be too old then either.

also, experiment (licitly!) with psychiatric drugs.
posted by queenofbithynia at 9:14 AM on May 19, 2020 [5 favorites]

To this internet stranger, it sounds like you did the best you could with the deck of carts you were dealt. Yes, other people "managed" to live in the halls in university, but they weren't trying to navigate your specific situation.

A saying that you might wish to ponder is "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second to best time is now."

Unfortunately , it's unlikely that you will ever be able to have the "full undergraduate" residential experience. However, it's not too late to have other meaningful life-changing experiences. Granted, the Covid-19 situation makes things temporarily challenging, but at some point you will be able to create meaningful opportunities* for yourself.

*Going rock climbing, back packing and staying in youth hostels, joining a bunch of meet up groups... there are lots of opportunities here.
posted by oceano at 10:43 AM on May 19, 2020

To add to the therapeutic perspectives you may wish to consider, there’s a new approach called RO DBT (radically open dialectical behaviour therapy) that targets issues with “overcontrol” (like depression, OCD, and anxiety) in a structured manner, and includes components from other approaches around cognitive framing, acceptance, and behaviour - the twist (apart from the structure) is a strong focus on social signalling and exploration. (Have not done it myself, have only read about it. )
posted by cotton dress sock at 3:48 PM on May 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

Is it because regretting something that can't be changed is easier than taking action on something that can be, in the present?
Yes. Yes, it is. Yes, it absolutely is. You got it in one.

I don't know.
Yes, you do. It is because regretting something that can't be changed is easier than taking action on something that can be, in the present. You stop that "I don't know what it is" copout right now and set yourself working to learn how to do what it is that you want to do.

You've been thwarted long enough! This crap isn't your fault at all: you were raised in a way that made everything very hard, starting from a time before you can even remember. It has taken this long to figure it out because this is how long it takes!

Now that you know it isn't your fault and that regret is nothing more than a labor-saving device created by your abusers so that they wouldn't have to worry about torturing you because you'd do it yourself so that they could keep their hands and minds free to do mischief elsewhere, you can begin to fling off regret and scamper freely about the world learning and growing and having a blast.

It will take the rest of your life, but learning to do it will feel excellent. Every time you spot another way that you're holding yourself back it will be another chink you've made in the wall of misery. Air and light and good smells and yummy things and lovely eyes and sweet friends will come through this wall when you begin to knock it down. Even if you never get it all the way chipped away, even if it's mostly intact for years, you will feel better and better. It will start to get better immediately and it will keep getting gradually better, all your life.
posted by Don Pepino at 4:26 PM on May 19, 2020 [3 favorites]

One psychological fact that might help: it's been found that people regret the things they didn't do, rather than the things they did do. While our pasts are well known to us, the roads that we did not take would have led to what? We don't know, so our minds automatically conjure up pleasurable or perfect scenarios to beat ourselves up with.

One good resource is a book called "Self-Compassion" by Kristin Neff. Because kindness to oneself is what is needed for us overachievers.

My favorite way of dealing with regrets is this poem by Mary Oliver. It's well known, but ironically often misinterpreted because people quote the last two lines as a challenge to make the most of your life. But that's not it at all.

The Summer Day
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
posted by storybored at 8:31 PM on May 19, 2020 [2 favorites]

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