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Use Regret to Improve Your Life

Ah, regrets. We all have ‘em. No matter how wonderful our lives appear to be or actually are, we can’t help but recall things we did or wish we hadn’t done and wonder about how our lives would have turned out if we’d acted differently. Many dysregulated eaters are beset by regrets which makes it hard for them to enjoy the present or plan well for the future. And, sometimes, the stress of regretting drives them to comfort eating.

As wise and witty psychotherapist and author Lori Gottlieb says in Maybe You Should Talk to Someone (p. 166): “. . . regret can go one of two ways: it can either shackle you to the past or serve as an engine for change.” In truth, it’s neither the magnitude of your actions nor the consequences of them that dictate which attitude you’ll have about regret. Nor is it your current circumstances, whether they’re stellar, dismal or wildly unsatisfactory. It’s your thinking about what happened and the meaning you make of it.

Here’s a scenario to illustrate my point. You’ve just ended a decade's long relationship with someone who has been abusive to you. This is the second of such longstanding relationships in which someone initially treated you like a queen (or king), but gradually became a tyrant who insisted on ruling your life. You’ve also had a good number of friendships that ended badly, leaving you feeling betrayed and abandoned. In fact, you’ve had only a handful of meaningful long-term connections over your lifetime that you feel good about. Now, in middle age, you think about what went wrong in these relationships a lot and regret that you made so many poor decisions.

The wrong way to approach your regrets is to use them to beat yourself up and as proof of what a defective person you are. By repeatedly reviewing these relationships in memory, what surfaces for you is the hurt you endured and still do to this day. Whenever you think about the unhappy endings to your relationships you feel sad and cry and can’t believe that any one person could make so many mistakes. Though dwelling on these instances makes you miserable, you feel strangely drawn to them.

The right way to approach regrets is to understand why you chose as you did and remind yourself that you didn’t set out to pick people who would disappoint and hurt you. Putting on your curiosity cap and taking off your judgmental jacket will put you in the right frame of mind. Hmm, I wonder why I thought I was doing something right for myself and it turned out so wrong. It would help to consider your childhood in which your parents mistreated you in different ways, making you feel small and unloved, and to understand that these initial, primary attachments shaped your concept of relationships.

You could analyze the character traits and personalities of people who’ve mistreated and disappointed you and come up with a list of which ones spell disaster (to avoid in the future). You could forgive yourself for poor decision-making and vow to use what you learned to make better ones. You could read self-help books or get yourself into therapy. In this “engine for change” mindset, you would be looking at these past relationships as learning experiences on the way to getting things right next time.

Regrets don’t need to ruin your life. You are where you are right now, whether you like it or not. There is often truth in what sounds trite: You can’t change the past, but you can use what you learned from it to find and enjoy relationships you will feel proud of in the future.







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