Living Beyond Regret

How do you restore direction after a psychological wrong-turn in life?

Posted Jan 04, 2018

Mitchell Hollander/Upsplash
Source: Mitchell Hollander/Upsplash

I recently encountered a person who was strikingly brilliant. Let's call him Jack. Jack possessed a deep and unusually profound understanding of people and life. He was also empathic, loving, genuine and courageous. But in the course of speaking to him, I learned that he was having a difficult time recovering from some recent embarrassing events. 

The Dilemma: Jack had found himself in some dubious drug-related run-ins with the law—and he had lost his grip on himself to the point that he was arrested for stealing as well. He was clearly deeply regretful about his actions and recognized that at the time of his crimes, his emotions ran high, and his impulses had gotten the better of him. Still, his understanding and deep regret were not enough to free his mind. 

Despite his immense drive and remarkable brilliance, Jack's anxiety had begun to take over his life. He became desperate from time to time, as he plunged intermittently into hopelessness, not seeing any light at the end of the tunnel. The problem was, he felt safe nowhere, and had nobody he could truly trust. It was as if his crimes had left a permanent scar on his life.

The Reality: How Different Is Jack? Many people take a wrong turn in life. They make regrettable relationship decisions, commit crimes, or have errors in judgment. Frequently, they are plunged into the depths of despair, wondering if they could ever recover from their indiscretions. 

They may feel judged by others, not realizing that those others may be suffering from an illusion of superiority. In fact, recent research shows that people may be wired to believe they are superior in some way, even when they are clearly not.

Studies demonstrate that when people like you and me are asked how good a driver we are, how intelligent we are, or how friendly we are, we often overestimate our abilities. In fact, 70 percent of people think that they are better than average. This is clearly not logically possible since "being above average" could only apply to half of all people. And though we may be unaware of our own foibles, we may indeed possess more of them than we are willing to admit.

People frequently over-inflate their moral superiority as well. They believe that they are extremely moral and virtuous when they are clearly less so.

Jack may have violated moral or societal boundaries out of a state of confusion, desperation, curiosity or a sincere attempt to make sense of his paradoxical nature in life. Coming to terms with our contradictions is how we all evolve through life. 

Jack is far less alone than he (or we) might realize. 

How to manage our impulses: We can't abolish our impulses because they feed higher thought. For instance, they contain the energy that we need for creative ideas. In fact, many higher levels of thought such as astute decision-making are often fueled by primitive impulses. Our sexual drives and emotional excitement are all part of this basic source of energy.

Despite their power to enhance our intelligence, these impulses may make us lose our way and derail our thinking too. "Attention" is like the reins that can direct these impulses. But when it is not stable or mature enough to direct those primitive impulses, it's easy to get lost. Children with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, for example, may commit more crimes.

Having a darker side is normal. Coming to know it is key. There is a positive side to the shadow. This contains the unrecognized potential of all that you can be. Within it, you can find the aspirations, drives, and motivations that can help you realize your greatest self. 

But there is also another part of your shadow that you repress or reject. This includes previous traumas, emotional pain, sadness, anger, and emotions that generally frighten you. They are unconscious but often create chaos and desperation in your life. 

In Jack's case, this repressed side of his shadow may have activated his desperate impulses and caused him to panic. He or anyone who is slowed down in reaching their highest selves need to spend time getting to know their shadow—to understand their fears and self-loathing and the impulses that come from prior traumas. 

But in order to do this effectively, some more basic elements also need to be in place. For instance, Jack needs to ensure that he sleeps well. Since unconscious guilt may cause insomnia, something more obvious like his sleep may also be affected. And not sleeping well can disrupt attention too. 

In my recent book, I also explain how vital "rest" and "unfocus"  is to moral caring too. "Depletion makes the heart grow weary" and you start to care less if you don't rest well.

Main idea: When something reverses the progress you have made, never give up. Always remember to examine what has derailed you. Regret may help, but it is not enough. In a state of heightened self-care such as getting a good night's sleep, make sure that you get to know your shadow self. This is where your greatness lies, and where repressed emotions may be adequately integrated and accepted so that they don't wreak havoc on your life. A therapist can help you navigate this sometimes hazardous terrain.