When our life does not proceed in the direction we imagined and we come to a place of great uncertainty, it is time to expand our consciousness, to open to what is possible beyond what we expected. Michael, a 65 year-old attorney, feared death because he was overcome with regret. When I asked him what exactly he feared, he said, “I didn’t achieve my potential. I thought I’d be much more successful. I don’t think I have enough time left to make it happen and I’m not really driven to make it happen either.” Dana always wanted to become a mother. However, she was not in a stable relationship and didn’t have the money to freeze her eggs or have a child on her own. Her anxiety was rising as her biological clock wound down. She wondered, “How do I deal with the reality that I won’t have children?” With great courage, self-compassion, and support we can face the possibility of not achieving the experiences we so deeply wanted. Regret, while a natural, very human feeling, is a static state. Regret keeps us stuck and becomes a weight we carry. What helps us move past regret is accepting reality and allowing ourself to mourn for our losses. Accepting that we cannot reach a life goal or dream and embracing our sadness (the core emotion that makes it possible to overcome loss) helps us move past regret and disappointment. No doubt grieving is a painful process. Unfortunately, we cannot think our way through emotions, we must feel them. However, as we experience our grief, the depth of the pain subsides. Then we are free and can move on. Most people fear that if they connect to their sadness, the grief will never end. But it will. With a supportive other and a compassionate stance for our Self, we can cry until our tears stop. And if we are holding on to anger towards people who had thwarted us, we can safely experience that anger as well. Validating our anger brings relief because we have honored what is deeply true. We can in fact safely get in touch with all of our core emotions, allowing them to flow, peak, and finally pass through our body bringing release. If experiencing a core emotion like sadness doesn’t bring relief, there is a reason. Often the reason has to do with the negative stories that so often surround our core emotions. These negative stories complicate and make our grief worse. For example, What is wrong with me? stories move us away from our sadness and self-compassion and into a state of shame. I have made bad choices stories also block us from healing by moving us to self-blame and guilt. And, stories projecting us into the future, like I will never be happy, block us from accepting and grieving our losses - from experiencing our core sadness. When we have truly mourned for what has been lost to us, our hearts begin to open. We start to imagine new possibilities and see ourselves creating a meaningful life in ways we never considered. We begin to invite in exciting, meaningful questions like, What do I do with the abundance of my love that I want to share? And, What are my values around how to live a full rich life? This is what it means to expand our consciousness. Michael worked hard to overcome his regret.
I asked him, "At what point did you first remember feeling you had not reached your potential?"
"I felt that way since I was a teenager struggling in school," he told me.
This was an epiphany for Michael. He realized his present day regret was not tied to his position at the law firm but to a childhood feeling of inadequacy. Once he realized this, he worked hard to heal his past wounds. He mourned for his young Self and all the adversity he had suffered. He began to appreciate all that he had accomplished under very difficult circumstances. He began to feel proud of himself. And, his regret diminished. When Dana was able to process her core sadness and began to expand her consciousness, she found she could cultivate meaning for herself by creating relationships with children as a special auntie or godmother. She adopted a pet to love and nurture. She began to contribute to her community by volunteering. And she became excited about developing her creativity and spirituality. The road to feeling better is one where we radically accept our losses and limits, forgive ourselves, and embrace what actually is. Imagine connecting with an older version of your Self, who is reflecting back on life, proud that neither regret nor grief held you back from living fully in whatever way that had meaning. You might even feel proud of your Self for your strength and resilience in making the most of your adversity. In the words of novelist Hanya Yanagihara, “Things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully.“ (Details have been changed to protect patient confidentiality.)
My co-writer for this blog post is Karen Kranz, PhD, R Psych. Dr. Kranz is a psychologist in Vancouver, BC, and a member of the faculty at the AEDP Institute. Thank you, Karen!