Your life has been a string of events that leads you to where you are now – in part determined by doors opened, doors closed, and the history, decisions and happenings that contribute to who and where you are today. When you look back on your life so far, how do you feel? Optimally, there are no regrets. But in reality for many, when you're having difficulty feeling okay with where you are now, you may look back with regret and grieve lost opportunities, lost relationships, no-win situations, and unfortunate decisions that you perceive as having affected the trajectory of your life – if only you hadn't married your ex; if only you hadn't put your career on hold to have children, if only... The list in your head of imagined and impossible negotiations to bring your loved one back or to gain access to that better life you should have had can painfully distort your thinking.
In this process, you grieve the loss of what you perceive would have been. You see yourself as having lost something, or the idea of something that is profoundly meaningful to you, and the experience is every bit as real as suffering after any kind of traumatic event.
When you feel despair at what could have been, and imagine how you could have contributed to a "better" outcome than what actually happened, you are participating in a form of "bargaining," which is one of Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief. When you fantasize different paths and different outcomes, you are participating in “retroactive bargaining." What could you have done differently to avoid the remorse, regret and shame you now feel?
It is a common experience to look back at aspects of your life with regret, but for most people it isn't the only motivation for fantasizing about the past. Instead, many psychologists, myself included, believe that almost everything you do is meant to be self-preserving, even if it turns out to be self-destructive instead. During challenging times in your past, you undertook certain actions and beliefs in an effort to manage or avoid difficult situations and uncomfortable experiences. When you fantasize about things coming out differently than they have, you are attempting to transform the experience, albeit briefly – to allow yourself a respite from regret and other painful reminders of past “mistakes.” This process lets you briefly have the outcome you want.
Unfortunately, fantasy allows only a brief respite. You made the choices you made and have become the person you are. In the present, reality is reality, loss is loss, and nothing can be shifted by renegotiating your actions in the past. Retroactive bargaining is a band-aid that can make you feel temporarily better, but can leave you feeling worse when you come back to now and are painfully reminded yet again how things actually turned out.
That said, retroactive bargaining yields important information. Noticing a particular time or area of your life that you fixate on may indicate that there is loss in your life that you have not allowed yourself to adequately grieve. The event could even have happened 20 years ago or longer, but at the time you weren't able to give it the attention it needed to heal.
Ultimately, instead of engaging in retroactive bargaining, work on forgiving yourself for the decisions and actions in your past that you wish you could have changed. Yes, hindsight can illuminate how differently you could have handled something. But what gets lost, is context. As you engage in retroactive bargaining, you are doing it with all the knowledge you have now without taking into account what you knew and who you were at the time. There were reasons and forces and more factors than you could possibly have been aware of that compelled your choices and the outcome.
If you find yourself in the cycle of regret, replaying a scene in your head and sculpting a different outcome, try to acknowledge that there are reasons you did what you did at the time. Understand that your past self didn’t have the wealth of knowledge or perspective your current self does. Putting your past in context and acknowledging that there were more forces at play than you may have considered at the time can help you feel more accepting of the person you are now.