When regret takes hold, many clients spiral into self-criticism and self-blame . . .
. . . and too often, it becomes a debilitating loop that only deepens their regret.
But according to Ron Siegel, PsyD, there are three key questions you might ask to help your client begin to disrupt this cycle and release feelings of regret.
So, how might we help people to make this shift into, “What has happened to me?” Well, we can start by simply noticing the factors at play, how their upbringing perhaps shaped them and shaped how they see themselves and others, what the consequences and contingencies were that shaped their behavior. What worked for them? What was perhaps positively reinforced? What are all the different social and society forces that contributed to their decisions, contributed to them doing what they did?
And what were the biological forces? Maybe they were somebody who just had a kind of anxious temperament, for example, that made them somewhat avoidant. Maybe they were someone who is kind of ADD and tended to act impulsively, and had a hard time kind of investing now for future outcomes. Whatever it is, what were their temperamental dispositions here?
And as we investigate these factors together, we almost always realize that it’s actually perfectly natural, even necessary, that they made the choices they did. And, of course there can be sadness about missing out, but the sadness is different from regret. That’s a kind of, to my mind, the sadness involves maybe mourning what’s happened. And it’s okay for people to be sad about things that turned out the way that they did. The regret has much more of a self-critical narrative to it, and the more we can see clearly the factors that are involved in our choices, the more the self-criticism can begin to soften.One concrete approach we can try is to ask our client to reflect on this. “If I were to have met you and heard about your regrets, what would I suggest to you? What would I say?” And almost always, the person can access this wiser part of themselves that can say, “Well, you’d probably say, ‘Well, I understand why you did what you did. It was a natural consequence of being in this circumstance or coming from this background.'”
And another way that we can help people to let go the regret, is to examine the expectations that weren’t fulfilled. “Where did the idea come from about who you were supposed to be? How was that idea reinforced? How did it become so central in your life?” And here we can look at societal messages that play into it, familial messages, particular relationships that shaped it.
And finally, and this is a tough one, but I’ll go here with some clients sometimes, is pointing to something which is potentially very freeing, even though it’s hard to grapple with, which is to mention that, “We’re all going to die someday. I don’t know if it’s going to be sooner or later, but we’re all going to die. And once you’re dead, how much will it have mattered, the thing that you’ve got regret over? How important will it have been?” And very often, since the thing resonates in some way with our self-image or our self-judgment, people come to the conclusion, “Yeah. I guess it wouldn’t have mattered so very much.”
If you’ve got a client who’s stuck in regret, check this out. You’ll hear strategies and interventions from experts such as Janina Fisher, PhD; Terry Real, LICSW; Frank Anderson, MD; George Faller, LMFT and many more.
Now we’d like to hear from you. How have you worked with regret in your practice? Please let us know in the comments below.