Banishing Mid-life Regret

We may be carrying around more than everyday regrets.

Posted Aug 06, 2012

Not living regretfully can be a challenge! My teen-aged daughter occasionally mentions this in a sing-song voice: Mom, let’s not be regretful! Past decisions sometimes drag me down and my family finds me ruminating out loud about could have's and should have's, when it would obviously be better for everyone if I could turn my attention to the present or the future.

But at mid-life, we may be carrying around more than the everyday regrets. We may get stuck focusing on decisions made, paths not taken, or opportunities missed. Life is full of constraints and consequences. Although there are others, the usual constraints include money, time, personal health, or family obligations. And as a consequence, we might experience a lack of fit between our ideal self or ideal life, and our reality. Maybe we never quite managed the “dream” house or job or relationship we hoped for. Maybe we never accomplished as much as we thought we should.

Mid-life crises are the stuff of last chances. Maybe I could still…whatever it is. One thing is sure, sometimes we do have those chances and it may be worthwhile taking them before it’s too late. After all, the saying, “nothing ventured, nothing gained” holds a lot of truth. But sometimes, we are in panic mode because we are living regretfully about choices we have made, how we spent our time, where we focused our energies. And then we look in the mirror and realize where we are in our life’s trajectory…firmly in the second half.

Studies on regret among middle-aged and older adults have identified regrets about education, work, marriage, children’s problems, money, family relationships, and health to be among the most common. Research also suggests that living with intense regret contributes to depression and even to health problems. Thus it is important to face these issues if we can.

A psychological theorist familiar to students of the social sciences, Erik Erikson, offers a constructive take on aging and regret. Although newer theories crowd the landscape of developmental psychology, Erikson did much to help us understand development across the lifespan by extending Freud’s psychoanalytic stage theory into adulthood and later life. His psychosocial theory proposed that in middle adulthood we find ourselves with the specific “task” of generativity versus stagnation.

By generativity, Erikson meant we do best at this stage if we can focus energies on generating something worthwhile, usually through turning to work or to helping others. Having earlier established a stable identity and relationships, by middle adulthood we are increasingly involved in the world around us as parents, mentors, leaders and creators. So the suggestion here might be that if we regret something we didn’t do or become when we were younger, there may be a way to recast those early dreams into something feasible and meaningful in the present.

Erikson’s psychosocial theory goes on to pose ego integrity versus despair as the task for what he termed "maturity”—approximately 65 years of age and beyond. Integrity here means that we have integrated our understanding of and feelings about our earlier life stages with our older self. It is this mature stage that opens up the possibility for acceptance of who we’ve been and how we coped…bringing everything into perspective with the benefit of wisdom, the strength Erikson identified for this stage. Life Review therapy, based on Erikson’s last stage, was developed in the early 1960’s by the late Dr. Robert Butler, a pioneer in gerontology research and clinical practice. This type of psychotherapy takes the older person through life’s memories with the goals of making sense of it all and achieving greater self-acceptance and that elusive “ego integrity”—effectively casting regret aside.

In my experience, there is seldom a linear path through life’s stages and tasks. But Erikson’s theory suggests that psychological development in mid-life and beyond may include a changing sense of what’s most important to us as we work through both our regrets about the past and fears about the future. Although we are the same people, it is natural that what is important to us at 50 or 60 may be different from what was important when we were in our 20’s or 30’s.

Consciously looking inward through journaling about our everyday life while seeking connections between now and the past is one way to explore our regrets in a proactive way. Psychotherapy to help us contain and harness those ruminations about past regrets and make peace with them is another way. In any case, it can be helpful to take some focused time to clarify the issues: What were the decisions you made and why? What were the constraints at the time? How have things changed? And perhaps most important: What steps can you take now?

Being kind to our younger selves as we look back, respecting our past decisions or at least forgiving ourselves, mourning our losses and missed opportunities—these are some of the elements we can use to move forward towards contentment with the life we lead in the present.