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Regret Prevention

How to avoid chronic resentment, anger, depression, and self-destructiveness

After a quarter century of clinical work and research with highly distressed families, I consider myself to be in the business of preventing regret.

Any therapist who has worked at all with seniors can tell you that a palpable regret sits heavily on the shoulders of ther clients, especially when laced with grief. According to research and clinical experience, people regret choices about education, work, and, most profoundly, failings in close relationships – as partners, parents, siblings, adult children. Particularly, people tend to regret not being compassionate and loving enough to loved ones. A presage of this especially poignant kind of regret comes with the untimely death of a loved one. The common self-doubt, even in relationships that were 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?”

The first step toward avoiding the ultimate regret is to answer the following questions.

1. What is the most important thing about you as a person?

2. What do you want those you love to think about you?

3. How do you want your loved ones to feel about you?

4. What kind of relationships do you want your children to have in school, in work, in love?

5. Are you modeling for your children the relationships you want them to have?

6. What would your life mean to you if you lost your family?

7. Near the end of your life, what might you regret the most?

If answering these questions seems hard, the second step in preventing regret will be even more difficult. Behaviors that lead to long-term regret tend to be habituated and, therefore, resistant to change through insight and desire alone. Changing habits entails forging new habits 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 pushups,” repetitive exercises to forge connections to our deeper values that will hold under the stress of impulsivity, impulse gratification, and ego defense.

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