In just about any self-help support group meeting around the world, you will find people who have been through unimaginable pain standing tall and fearlessly sharing their stories. Despite devastating personal losses, lifelong health problems and broken relationships, they are not consumed with shame. In fact, many seem strangely at peace with their past.
This is the freedom of recovery without regret.
Because addicts tell lies and make repeated mistakes, regret commonly becomes an obstacle to recovery. Left to fester, regrets not only make it difficult to learn from the past and move forward but they can also take valuable time and attention away from recovery, increasing the risk of relapse.
Though painful, regret can be an important part of the healing process. In treatment, we see regret as a sign of readiness to change. As addicts become increasingly aware of the negative consequences of their drug use, regret is a natural response. In its healthiest form, regret drives the addict to ask, “What can I do differently right now to right the wrongs of the past and make better decisions in the future?”
Here are a few ways to deal with regrets so they don’t get in the way of recovery:
Focus on the Present. The only day anyone can do anything about is today. Focusing on missed opportunities and making comparisons to other people rarely bring about positive change. Rather than dwelling on what could’ve, should’ve or would’ve been, focus on what you can do right now to create the life you want.
Although it is present-focused, recovery is not about shutting the door on the past. The 4th Step of AA/NA directs addicts to conduct a searching inventory of the past. We remember the past, not to wallow in shame, guilt or denial, but to understand how the future can be different.
Make an Honest Evaluation. It’s tempting to look back and assume life would’ve been different but for one or two bad decisions. An honest evaluation can help put regrets in perspective and reveal the lessons to be gleaned from the experience. Ask yourself if the memory has been distorted over time. Could you truly have done something differently, or have you taken responsibility for something out of your control? Did you do your best given the circumstances?
Embrace the Learning Experience. Some people turn their regrets into a story that defines who they are. One or two bad decisions become exaggerated to mean ““I’m a bad person” or “I never make good decisions.” To find peace in recovery you must find peace with yourself, which means learning from your experiences and letting the rest go.
Doing away with regret can be intimidating because it means facing an unknowable future and taking new risks that may or may not play out as desired. The greatest thinkers throughout history have known that “failures” are not to be regretted but celebrated as steppingstones to later success. Often the biggest “mistakes” turn into the greatest fortune. Those who are afraid of regret run the much greater risk that they will be forever limited to only partial satisfaction.
Make Amends. To promote accountability, the 8th and 9th Steps of AA/NA ask addicts to make amends where possible. This means making apologies when merited, and using the lessons you’ve learned to help others. It also means fully committing to your recovery. Your continuing sobriety and efforts toward self-improvement are the greatest gift you can give yourself or any of the people you have wronged in the past.
For some, holding onto regret can be a way of avoiding responsibility. They believe that regret shows they’re truly sorry and will keep them from repeating their mistakes, but it actually keeps them stuck in a self-focused mode that blocks healing for both the addict and their loved ones. Dwelling on regrets doesn’t fix the past and only draws the suffering out into the future.
Accept the Consequences. Sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, it isn’t possible to mend past hurts. The serenity prayer offers a useful reminder that some things are within your power to change (working a recovery program and making amends) and others are not (the past and in some cases, the feelings of those who have been hurt). Mistakes are part of being human. While it is important to accept responsibility for the wrongs committed, be generous with your forgiveness of self and others so that you can be free to move on.
Focus on the Positive. The human brain is adept at organizing information into habits. This is why it takes a long time to complete a task (say, learning a new computer program) on the first or second try, but becomes virtually automatic after multiple attempts. While this organizational structure can save time and energy in our tasks of daily living, it can also turn negative self-talk into an automatic process. The recovering addict who dwells on regret may find that negative thoughts creep up involuntarily and far more frequently than positive ones because the brain has become habituated to this sequence.
No one chooses to become an addict, but there are lessons that can be learned as a result. For example, recovering addicts often have more empathy for others, are able to embrace their own imperfections and have a new appreciation for life. Troubling events from the past can be instructional, but they cannot be undone. Once you’ve learned the lesson, focus on who you are and what you can do better today.
David Sack, M.D., is board certified in Addiction Psychiatry and Addiction Medicine. As CEO of Elements Behavioral Health he oversees addiction treatment centers that include Promises Treatment Centers, The Ranch, The Recovery Place, and The Sexual Recovery Institute. You can follow Dr. Sack on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/drdavidsack.
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Last reviewed: 25 May 2012