Thursday, February 13, 2014

Bargaining With Your Past Creates Regret in the Present

Along the lines of what we’ve been talking about…. Ruminating about lost love, pain, and regret from the past… we all know how deeply these things can haunt us and pierce our hearts well into our presents. This article has something rather healing to say about all of that. As well as some useful advice. What do you think?




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Instead of regret, know that bad decisions were meant to be self-preserving.
Published on February 11, 2014 by Suzanne Lachmann, Psy. D.  in Me Before We

Your life has been a string of events that leads you to where you are now – in part determined by doors opened, doors closed, and the history, decisions and happenings that contribute to who and where you are today. When you look back on your life so far, how do you feel? Optimally, there are no regrets. But in reality for many, when you're having difficulty feeling okay with where you are now, you may look back with regret and grieve lost opportunities, lost relationships, no-win situations, and unfortunate decisions that you perceive as having affected the trajectory of your life – if only you hadn't married your ex; if only you hadn't put your career on hold to have children, if only... The list in your head of imagined and impossible negotiations to bring your loved one back or to gain access to that better life you should have had can painfully distort your thinking.


In this process, you grieve the loss of what you perceive would have been. You see yourself as having lost something, or the idea of something that is profoundly meaningful to you, and the experience is every bit as real as suffering after any kind of traumatic event.


When you feel despair at what could have been, and imagine how you could have contributed to a "better" outcome than what actually happened, you are participating in a form of "bargaining," which is one of Kubler-Ross’ five stages of grief. When you fantasize different paths and different outcomes, you are participating in “retroactive bargaining." What could you have done differently to avoid the remorse, regret and shame you now feel?


It is a common experience to look back at aspects of your life with regret, but for most people it isn't the only motivation for fantasizing about the past. Instead, many psychologists, myself included, believe that almost everything you do is meant to be self-preserving, even if it turns out to be self-destructive instead. During challenging times in your past, you undertook certain actions and beliefs in an effort to manage or avoid difficult situations and uncomfortable experiences. When you fantasize about things coming out differently than they have, you are attempting to transform the experience, albeit briefly – to allow yourself a respite from regret and other painful reminders of past “mistakes.” This process lets you briefly have the outcome you want.


Unfortunately, fantasy allows only a brief respite. You made the choices you made and have become the person you are. In the present, reality is reality, loss is loss, and nothing can be shifted by renegotiating your actions in the past. Retroactive bargaining is a band-aid that can make you feel temporarily better, but can leave you feeling worse when you come back to now and are painfully reminded yet again how things actually turned out.


That said, retroactive bargaining yields important information. Noticing a particular time or area of your life that you fixate on may indicate that there is loss in your life that you have not allowed yourself to adequately grieve. The event could even have happened 20 years ago or longer, but at the time you weren't able to give it the attention it needed to heal.


Ultimately, instead of engaging in retroactive bargaining, work on forgiving yourself for the decisions and actions in your past that you wish you could have changed. Yes, hindsight can illuminate how differently you could have handled something. But what gets lost, is context. As you engage in retroactive bargaining, you are doing it with all the knowledge you have now without taking into account what you knew and who you were at the time. There were reasons and forces and more factors than you could possibly have been aware of that compelled your choices and the outcome.


If you find yourself in the cycle of regret, replaying a scene in your head and sculpting a different outcome, try to acknowledge that there are reasons you did what you did at the time. Understand that your past self didn’t have the wealth of knowledge or perspective your current self does. Putting your past in context and acknowledging that there were more forces at play than you may have considered at the time can help you feel more accepting of the person you are now.


4 comments:

  1. "Ultimately, instead of engaging in retroactive bargaining, work on forgiving yourself for the decisions and actions in your past that you wish you could have changed. Yes, hindsight can illuminate how differently you could have handled something. But what gets lost, is context. As you engage in retroactive bargaining, you are doing it with all the knowledge you have now without taking into account what you knew and who you were at the time. There were reasons and forces and more factors than you could possibly have been aware of that compelled your choices and the outcome."
    This reminds me of what they teach you in DBT about radical acceptance of past actions - that we should have compassion for our past selves because we did not have the skills yet to handle things the way we wanted to, or what have you.

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  2. Can you help me with some words of wisdom from your own therapy or maybe something you have learned as it pertains to what I am struggling with? I grieve and long for the mother that I never had (I have BPD) and experience that chronic emptiness. I have received so much mothering and nurturing from my therapist. I have (unhealthily) fantasized ad nauseum about all the ways she would have been the mother I wanted, how things would have been different. We have discussed how fantasizing is not a picture of mental health, and just a form of escape, one that I have allowed myself for too long. I don't know what else to do. It brings me happiness to fantasize about it, when the emptiness otherwise feels so painful and depressing.

    Do you experience this?

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    Replies
    1. Anon - don't mean to jump in here, but I too struggle with this, being a BPDer with a less-than-ideal mother. I'm trying to accept my mother's limitations and learn to have compassion for myself in all the ways she did not. I have an imaginary letter to my mom over here (http://iamunstuckintime.blogspot.com/2014/01/letter-to-mom-1.html), where I sort through these feelings a little. I'm still stuggling, so it's not as Wise as I would like it to be, but I will get there with time. You are NOT alone in this!

      Also, I haven't done it yet, but my therapist suggested that I imagine what I would have done, what choices I would have made if I were my mother - I think her goal is reparenting myself, learning compassion for myself, and solidifying the knowledge that I deserved better. In fact, her words word "I want you to imagine the mother you deserved." I suspect I've been avoiding it because it still hurts that I don't have one.

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    2. In many ways I don't feel much attachment to my mother, and I do feel an attachment to my therapist that I don't experience with my mother. Especially as I talk and share with my therapist a great deal more than I do with my mother. However I think what I experience with my therapist is healthier than what you're describing. Borderline Therapists often do a form of Limited Reparenting, which I think mine has done with me, but I don't see her as a replacement for my actual mother, even though I do feel closer to her than I do with my actual mother.

      Hmmmm.

      I think this is actually pretty typical. Maybe overcompensating a bit for the loss of what you didn't have in the mother you needed growing up, but probably to be expected.

      Your therapist can only be something of a surrogate mother, not an actual mother. She can only help you learn to be confident in yourself. And like what your actual mother should have done for you... she is supposed to help you learn to be self sufficient... but in that, she is also a place of comfort and stability because you know that she will be there for you next time you go see her. Something you probably didn't have growing up. It makes complete sense that you would substitute her as your mother figure. Try to keep in mind though, that the ultimate goal of any /healthy/ mother, is to raise their child to be a functioning independent adult. That doesn't mean she won't always be there for you when you need her... but step by step, she is the hand that guides you to being the best you, that you can be because she cares about your well being and wants you to live the best life that you can.

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Leave me a comment! It makes me feel good and less paranoid about talking to myself =)

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