Everyone has regrets, but people in recovery have the added burden of facing the things they did when they were lost to active addiction.
It is painful to recognize the ways in which you’ve hurt yourself and others. But there is a chance to make amends, to find and give forgiveness, and make positive changes.
That’s why so many people look toward the new year to move forward with a cleaner slate.
What Is Regret?
Regret is a negative emotion that involves feeling badly about a personal action. It’s the remorse of, “I should have done it differently.”
Research shows that regret can be related to action versus inaction. For example, an alcoholic father attends his daughter’s wedding, gets drunk and insults her guests, regretting that he’s ruined his daughter’s important day. By the same token, an alcoholic parent may be too drunk to attend the wedding and regrets missing the important occasion.
Regret is often highly related to decision making―and when people are addicted to substances or behaviors, they often make poor or unhealthy decisions, regardless of negative consequences. It may also be anticipated regret related to certain decisions.
Then there are regrets in life that persist. People leave relationships and wish they hadn’t. They drop out of school and wish they’d finished. Or they hurt people they love, like parents, spouses and children, in ways they cannot take back. People with addiction may regret they ever took their first drug.
Marc Muchnick, Ph.D., explains it this way in his book, No More Regrets. “Regrets are things we do that we wish we hadn’t done and the things we fail to do that we wish we had done, both of which result in unhappiness, disappointment or remorse.”
How to Move On From Regret
Regret can keep people stuck, causing them to live in the past and stop growing. But Muchnick says that some of the greatest lessons in life come from bad decisions. When people can learn lessons from their mistakes and aim to correct those that they can, there is hope of getting out of the regret rut.
Experts recommend some of the following tips for a new year of fewer regrets:
1. Name your regrets
The first way to deal with any problem is not just to admit that it is there one, but to identify what it is. Giving language to the things that cause regret is a great start to tackling them. Identify regrets in your mind so you can begin to work on them.
2. Acknowledge obstacles.
Before January, or at least by New Year’s day, people should consider the obstacles to achieving their goals and begin thinking of resolutions. “In order for anyone to achieve their goals, they have to accept that there will be obstacles and plan ahead for them,” says Julia Colangelo, LCSW, PLLC. For example, if you haven’t seen a family member for five years and need to reconnect to make amends, take into account that arranging a meeting may take some time and they may not agree on the first try.
3. Know your most pressing goals.
Use the holidays to begin thinking of changes to be implemented in the new year. “I would suggest that individuals have their first and primary New Year’s resolution in mind and to reflect on and identify their goals,” says Colangelo. “This may mean to attend more meetings, or maybe it’s to talk to estranged family members.” It helps to list them in order of priority.
4. Take action on regrets
Guilt and shame weigh as heavily as regrets do, so it’s important not to let these things keep you stuck. “I have found that the best way for those in recovery to have fewer regrets in the future is to effectively deal with the regrets of the past,” says licensed counselor and certified addiction counselor Monte Drenner, LMHC, MCAP. “Often in recovery, especially early recovery, there are not only a lot of regrets, but also a great deal of guilt. This guilt keeps all the regrets of the past alive and hinders the future.”
5. Practice forgiveness
Not all regrets are about your own actions. Some may involve the actions of others. “The gift of forgiveness is one of the best things a person in recovery can do for their mental, emotional and spiritual health,” says Drenner. Holding grudges is emotional poison and adds to deep regrets. Learning to forgive others can also help in forgiving yourself.
6. Aim to live in the moment.
Regret can overpower your mind and keep you focused on the “what if’s” and “if only’s.” Mindfulness techniques, like breathing and imagining yourself in a “safe space”, can help you prevent your mind from ruminating on regrets and may help you achieve greater self-acceptance.
7. Develop better decision-making skills
Though parts of your life may have involved poor decisions fueled by substance abuse, there is still a chance to get on track. Sobriety can change everything and give you a chance to develop self-esteem, which can lead to healthier decisions and fewer regrets.
8. Don’t expect miracles on January 1st
Healing takes time. “When individuals in recovery want to begin New Year’s resolutions, I gently remind them (and anyone for that matter) that it’s never a bad day to begin goal-setting and looking forward to what might help them,” says Colangelo. But it’s also important to not put too much pressure on achieving results immediately. “It’s impossible to change everything one day all at once or start everything on January 1st.”
9. Go easy on yourself
Doing the work of making peace with past decisions and making amends takes courage and a bit of self-kindness. “I encourage people to not be so tough on themselves if everything doesn’t work out perfectly,” says Colangelo. You can’t control the result of every new action, or how other people will react; as long as you are trying, it should not be considered a failure.
Opportunity lost can also breed regret. The best way to move into the new year with fewer regrets is to do the emotional work, stay sober and make amends wherever possible. Make yourself ready to meet your goals as the the journey of healing progresses and you will never have to regret not taking these important steps.