“I don’t think I can ever let go of my regrets,” a new client sadly remarked. She was saying, indirectly, that she didn’t know how to live without her grief, sorrow, and self-recrimination.
Regrets are precious to the dark side of our psyche. They’re used, as well, by our psychological defenses, as I explain further along.
Sure, we might say we want to be free of all regrets. Deep in our psyche, nonetheless, we cling quite stubbornly or perversely to them.
Who in their right mind, we wonder, would want to be the stooped-over bearer of old regrets? The extra tonnage on our emotional life obviously produces unhappiness. Yet many millions of people carry this burden to the grave. This suffering is completely unnecessary. All that’s needed to drop this heavy load is the right self-knowledge.
“Never look back, unless you’re planning to go that way,” Henry David Thoreau famously said. Unfortunately, a lot of people do plan to go that way—or, more accurately, are compelled to go that way—in search of their favorite varieties of suffering, thanks to hidden dynamics in their unconscious mind.
Pushing us along that backwards direction is our heavy-handed inner critic. It’s always ready to torment us with scorn and mockery, while punishing us for our alleged misdeeds or passive inaction in the past. People don’t realize that their regrets cause them to absorb inner punishment that produces guilt and shame.
Past, present, or future—the inner critic doesn’t care. It’s a primitive force of self-aggression that takes satisfaction in pestering us, condemning us, and holding us accountable for what it judges to be inappropriate thoughts, wishes, or behaviors that relate to the past, or to the present moment, or even to some future possibilities. The psychology of people plagued by their regrets is such that they could easily become chronic worriers were they to shift their focus from the past to the future.
What are some of the biggest regrets that burden us to the grave? In her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying (Hay House, 2012), hospice nurse Bronnie Ware listed:
1—I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
2—I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
3—I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
4—I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
5—I wish that I had let myself be happier.
What could be worse than dying in the piteous agony of painful regrets? Still, regrets for many people become quite pronounced when, crouching at death’s door, they reflect morbidly on the life they’ve lived. To see how such regrets can be cleared from our emotional life, let’s look at each of these five regrets from the vantage of depth psychology. Though I examine the subject from the perspective of the dying, what’s written here can apply at any stage of adult life.
1—I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me. Perhaps you didn’t succeed in becoming fully true to yourself. Yet only a small minority of people gets straight A’s on the report card of life. Most of us come up short in a variety of ways, and we don’t deserve condemnation for being imperfect. Yet our inner critic, champion fault-finder, will gleefully hound even good decent people for their imperfections and frailties.
Don’t let your inner critic harass you about a life supposedly half-lived. You still have a chance to be true to yourself. Connect with yourself right now by blocking the inner critic from passing judgment on you. It has no business butting in to your life and holding you accountable for what’s happened in the past. Unless you’re a monster or an utter creep, your life has had stretches of sweetness and light. If you see your inner critic for the primitive self-aggression it is, you can neutralize it. That would enable you to tie up your life right now in a bow of self-respect, compassion, and love.
2—I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. Some people regret working too hard. Others, like me, goofed off a lot in their younger years and might regret just the opposite “misdeed”—not having worked hard enough. It’s not what people regret that’s the issue; rather it’s unresolved negative emotions that are determined to be felt. In this case, some past alleged misdeed or failure to act becomes one’s excuse for an unconscious willingness, through inner passivity, to absorb self-criticism. In order to be smart enough not to take everything at face value, we want to be as attuned as possible to the knowledge that inner conflict in our psyche causes us to see many things in a negative light, including our own life.
People who regret working too hard are upset that they missed opportunities to establish closer bonds or ties with family members. They feel they’ve taken others for granted. Yet isn’t it obvious we all could be more affectionate and loving. When we’re able to keep our inner critic at bay, we understand that the only right way to live in our final days of life is by mustering up, as best we can, all those feelings of affection and love for oneself and for others that we might not have easily accessed in our younger years.
3—I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings. Indeed, the courage to express our feelings is a precious asset, provided these feelings are heartfelt and sincere. Many people who allegedly do have the “courage” to express their feelings are unfortunately expressing negative reactions based on their misinterpretations of the intentions and behaviors of others. Or they’re overreacting to (or taking personally) the unkindness, malice, and neurosis of others. It’s easy to express feelings when reacting to one’s own dysfunction or neurosis, but such inappropriate reactions then become damaging to others as well as self-defeating.
Often our biggest regrets are not for the things we’ve done but for what we haven’t done (e.g., failing to express feelings). Why is this so? People are indulging in the pain of their own passivity. They’re churning up old memories for the unconscious purpose of recycling the hurt of not having represented themselves effectively or standing up for themselves in challenging situations. Back then they couldn’t find the words to express themselves effectively, and now, on their death bed, they’re recycling the painful feeling of that weakness. They now employ a defense to cover up what’s really happening: “I’m not recycling the old hurt of my passivity. Look at how much I regret not having expressed my feelings.” In using regret as a defense in this manner, they’re now obliged to feel the regret in an especially painful way.
4—I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. Who among us hasn’t let friendships slide? It’s almost unavoidable in a society where we’re so busy and so widely dispersed. In any case, painful regret in this regard means the individual is allowing himself or herself to feel a sense of separation from life, from people, and from oneself. Much of life is about connection and disconnection. Connection feels good; disconnection usually feels painful. Often our biggest inner pain involves the feeling of disconnection from self. When the lonely, dying individual is mourning the disconnection from friends, he or she is also feeling in that moment the disconnection from self.
The disconnection can also take this form: The dying person identifies with old “abandoned” friends who might have felt unimportant or unworthy in being forgotten. This is what this dying person is ready to feel—unimportant, unworthy, and insignificant in now passing from this life.
This individual can also be allowing the inner critic to harass him or her with this cruel allegation: “You aren’t a very nice person. You dropped all those friends. That wasn’t nice of you at all.” The individual’s defense now contends: “No, I’m not passively willing to absorb that harsh allegation. Look at how much I regret not having stayed in touch.” Again, the regret has to be felt at a painful level to make this defense work.
Remember that, through our loving side, we can stay in touch with friends by cherishing them in our heart. We can feel our love for them, if we can allow it. This is how we also stay connected to our self. Instead of regretting not having stayed in touch with old friends, we might try to feel connected to our self—and thereby to the whole of existence. Now there’s no need for regrets.
5—I wish that I had let myself be happier. This regret, from the perspective of depth psychology, is quite irrational. It’s not a simple thing to “let myself be happier.” We can’t “let happiness happen” until we’ve done the work of resolving inner conflict. If anything happens of its own accord, it’s unhappiness. We easily become entangled in unhappiness because of a multitude of forces, drives, attachments and defenses that collude and collide within our psyche. When we acquire self-knowledge concerning these inner dynamics, our intelligence is able to extricate us from inner conflict and thereby from unhappiness, at which point we can then let ourselves be happier.