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The Humanity of Regret

Now is the time to face what we're likely to regret.

Most therapists who work with the elderly will testify that the saddest, if not the hardest thing about the work is helping them live with their regret. This is especially painful when we see younger people consistently behave in ways they will almost certainly regret later in life.

The things people tend to regret the most near the end of life is that they have not been more compassionate, loving, or supportive to those they love. A presage of this kind of regret comes with the untimely death of a loved one. A nagging self-doubt, even in relationships that were very close and loving, is something like:

“Did she really know how much I loved her?”

“Did I make him feel how important he was to me?”

Now is the time to prevent regret for lapses in our more humane emotions. It serves us well to reflect on the behaviors and attitudes that are likely to cause us long-term regret.

Am I in touch with my basic humanity?

Basic humanity is the innate capacity for interest in the well-being of others. In adversity it motivates sacrifice. In emergency it motivates rescue. It allows us to grow beyond the limitations of personal experience and prejudice. The more in touch with basic humanity, the more humane we feel. When out of touch with it, we feel less humane.

It’s become more difficult to remain in touch with basic humanity in the information age. With 24-hour reminders of the suffering in the world, we’re prone to compassion fatigue. The constant exposure of hostility creates a sense of intolerance, if not paranoia. At times maintaining basic humanity in the pressures of everyday life is like standing up on two galloping horses at once. Sometimes the best we can do is a small act of compassion or kindness every day.

Am I pursuing a life of meaning and purpose?

A life of meaning and purpose emerges from developing a sense of values and sticking to them. Know what you stand for and think of how you might feel about it 20 years.

Am I loving, compassionate, and kind to the people I love?

On your death bed you’re more likely to think of how you treated loved ones than complain about how they treated you. Consider what you would like your loved ones to think about you and how you would like them to feel about you. If you have children, ask yourself whether you are modeling how to regulate emotions and improve situations rather than blame, deny, or avoid. Those skills, along with modeling compassion and kindness, will help determine the quality of their adult relationships. Are you modeling for them the relationships you want them to have when they are adults?

Am I appreciating enough?

On one level, to appreciate is to understand the complexity of an idea, interaction, or person, no easy task in our divisive, oversimplifying culture. On a deeper level, appreciation is opening your heart to be enhanced by the experience of someone or something. Appreciation isn’t thrust upon us, we must actively pursue it by deliberately allowing ourselves to feel it.

Do I have a sense of community?

A sense of community is identifying with a group of people or feeling a connection with the group, based on shared values, goals, or experiences. People with a strong sense of community tend to feel better about their lives with fewer regrets.

Develop the Right Habits

When we hear of regret in close relationships, we're likely to think of things like betrayal, deceit, or infidelity. Though extremely hurtful when they occur, these tend not to be subjects of long-term regret, probably because we go out of our way to make up for what we've done before it becomes too late. The behaviors that lead to long-term regret tend to be smaller but more frequent failures of compassion in the form of blame, denial, avoidance, criticism, defensiveness, and stonewalling. These maintain distance and a sense of isolation within the relationship. They also tend to be habituated and, therefore, resistant to change through insight and desire. Changing habits requires the formation of new habits that are incompatible with those you want to change. And that in turn requires a more flexible response from an emotional system made rigid by a lifetime of habits. Making the emotional system stronger and more flexible takes practice of something similar to “emotional push ups,” repetitive exercises to forge connections to our deeper values that will hold under the stress of impulse and ego defense.

Put another way, we must build a stress-conditioned response to move from toddler-brain dominance (impulsive, angry, resentful, devaluing, demanding, pouting, stubborn, overwhelmed, out of control) to adult-brain dominance—focused on improving, appreciating, connecting, and protecting. In our adult brains we can behave consistently according to deeper, more humane values, which is the only way to prevent regret.

More from Steven Stosny, Ph.D.
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