Regret and the Intrusive Thought of, “If Only I Had…”

by | Mar 24, 2019 | Trust Yourself | 34 comments

As I frequently write about on my site, there are so many ways the mind tries to protect us from the vulnerability, discomfort, and pain of being present, but the one that presents most often in my audience is the defense mechanism of intrusive thoughts. If you’re not familiar with how to understand and work with intrusive thoughts, please read through the Intrusive Thoughts Collection.

Typically, I talk about intrusive thoughts like, “What if I’m with the wrong person?” or “What if I have a life-threatening illness?” But recently another intrusive mindset has circled the realm of my counseling work, which alerts me to the need to address it here: the mindset of regret. Regret is another escape hatch from the pain of the present moment. The mind thinks, “If I had only made that decision, or not that one, or chosen that person and not this one, I wouldn’t be feeling the pain or the frustration or the loneliness or the uncertainty that I feel now.” The mind forgets three things in those compelling moments when it entices us to climb up the vine of this intrusive mindset:

1. We make the best decisions we can given the information we had at the time.

To the perfectionist, which reins supreme in the inner court of psyche for many of the people who find their way to my work, there is one perfect path and if only we could divine that path or choice we would avoid unhappiness. But the loving and wise inner parent, who can be grown through doing inner healing work and is the particular focus of my Trust Yourself course, knows that there isn’t one right choice and that we can only make the best decision we can make given the information we had at the time.

2. We don’t know the outcome of those other paths and choices.

The fear-based mind assumes that if we had chosen differently we would be feeling better now but it forgets the possibility that had we chosen differently things may have turned out worse than they are right now. Again, this is simply another way that the ego tries to wiggle itself out of the discomfort of the present moment.

3. Regret presupposes that we are in control of our lives completely and it undermines the awareness of a deeper holding.

As Jack Kornfield shares on his Instagram feed:

“Like a traveler on a train, we can put our bags down. We can relax our grip, and trust in the unfolding of life. Do not worry. There is a web of life into which we are born, from which we can never fall.”

When I read those words, I feel a wave of relief come over me, and it’s an immediate antidote to any tricky stories my mind weaves about thinking that I’m in control. When I can trust in the unfolding of life, I trust in the choices I’ve made and the paths I’ve taken. It’s all as it’s meant to be.

So you see there is this sneaky element of control when we perseverate on regret that tells us that we can or should have changed in the past in some way in order to avoid present. Regret, almost by definition, causes us to lose our trust in life: the sense that we are being guided by a deeper principle that we know but cannot see.

There have been a couple of events in my life that I have spent time regretting before I was able to break through the strongholds and feel more freedom. One was my choice to travel to Brazil my junior year of college, which resulted in months of trauma and years of posttraumatic stress. Understandably, my small protective brain circled around the cliff of regret for years, as I had always intended to travel to Spain.

But one day I had the thought, “What if I had traveled to Spain and something much worse had happened. What if I had been sexually assaulted or kidnapped or killed?” We simply have no way of knowing the outcome that our choices will yield. But the deeper freedom around that regret comes when I remember, as you are well-aware if you follow my blog, that it was that experience in Brazil, as heart-wrenching and grueling and traumatic as it was, that catapulted me into the world of anxiety and panic and the work that I have been doing for the past 20 years. Had I not gone to Brazil, it’s quite likely that I would not be sitting here with you today. Although maybe I would. This is, again, on some level my ego wanting to make sense of and make peace with the pain of life. The real freedom arrives when I remember to sit in the groundlessness of being human.

In order to sit with the discomfort of being human and learn to attend skillfully to the intrusive mindset of regret, we must develop two foundational skills:

1. Learn how to grow a solid inner parent, which is the wise and loving part of ourselves that can attend to our thoughts and feelings with discernment and compassion, and

2. Learn about what it means to fill our Well of Self, the central channel which, when full, is a compass and anchor-point by which we can navigate our lives.

I teach both of these skills in Trust Yourself: A 30-day program to help you overcome your fear of failure, caring what others think, perfectionism, difficulty making decisions, and self-doubt, and my twelfth round will begin on April 13, 2019. I look forward to meeting you there.

If you would like to read some of my most popular posts on self-trust, including The Imposter Syndrome, The Fear of Making a Mistake, Leaf in the Wind Syndrome, and many more, please see the Self-Trust Collection, which can be found here.

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34 Comments

  1. Beautiful, thank you.

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  2. Awesome!
    I’m living in Brazil right now, and it’s being a terrible experience. I just can’t wait to get out of here. And that’s something that is contributing to my anxiety because I’m not where I’d like to be. I’m trying to accept that it’s just a phase and I’ll leave this country in a couple of years, and this is what it is in the present moment. I’m getting used to it, but it’s depressing sometimes. How was your experience? If you don’t mind me asking.

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    • It wasn’t actually Brazil that was the problem but the experience became a projection screen onto which my anxiety was attaching. I’m actually quite grateful for Brazil and look forward to going back one day. I write more about my experience there in the introduction of my book, The Wisdom of Anxiety, which you can download here:

      https://conscious-transitions.com/the-wisdom-of-anxiety/

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      • Understood. I will definitely check the book!
        In my case though, this experience abroad sometimes brings me anger and regret, because my mind goes “I shouldn’t come here, I should’ve stayed in my home country”. It’s rough.

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    • Same , I am in my home country but my soul knows that this is not the place I have to be . Something in me wants to go home – I know where that is and I am planning to go but I need to graduate first and that is what that’s keeping me here . But as much as I can’t wait to go and lead a life , I will miss those little joyous moments I had here and the impeccable lesson that I have learned along the way growing up where I am right now . I think God places us in places that we might not like for us to learn something from it to then move away and take that with us and pass down that lesson to our future children so that they can go on to become better people too .

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  3. Thank for another insightful post. I appreciate and am grateful for what you share and look forward to your posts each Sunday.

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  4. Thank you for sharing this! I’ve been noticing my fear of regretting something creep up more as I now live abroad and away from my family. It’s not that I’m sitting and regretting, but worried that something might happen that I will regret! Moving and being with my husband here is a choice I made from my gut, and it’s opening up so many beautiful things for my life. And yet, my mind will pop up with the fear of “what if someone dies or gets sick and you regret being far away?” OR when my family visits – “what if you don’t feel as connected as you wanted with them while they’re here and you regret not talking more deeply to them?” – all of this totally takes me out of the present moment of just being.

    I really appreciate this perspective and share as I get to see myself better <3 Your book also helped me so much as I transitioned into marriage almost at the same time of transitioning through this move. Can't thank you enough.

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    • I’m so glad the article and book were helpful ;). Anytime we’re in thoughts of “what-if” we’re in the defense mechanism that is trying to protect us from the vulnerability of the present moment – that ego defense that thinks that if it can choose perfectly now it can avoid pain in the future. We can’t avoid future pain no matter how much the ego plots and plans!

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  5. Regret is so big for me… Currently I’m intensely regretting a break up from five years ago. I feel if I had stayed with him I wouldn’t be have my terrible nervous breakdown last year and I wouldn’t be a lonely 34-year old. This regret is very strong and I guess I use it to beat myself up… I also have a thousand other regrets about what I did or didn’t do in the past. What would be a good excercise to work particularly with regret?

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    • The exercise is to ask, “What is this regret protecting me from feeling?” and see if you can soften the intense head-space of regret and start to feel the grief and loneliness that live at the center. It’s also recognizing, as I shared in the article, that the regret is a defense from the present moment and is a misguided belief that had you chosen differently then, you would avoid the pain of life now. It doesn’t work that way; pain is part of life, and even if you were still with that partner you would still be experiencing pain.

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  6. Hi Sheryl,

    Thank you for sharing this pearl of wisdom with your online community to begin the week. I will reread it, I’m sure 🙂

    As a new mother, I struggle with regret and guilt more than I’d ever anticipated. I struggle with the unknown of the future and what the world will be for my children. Though I can’t say I REGRET having children, there is a part of me that feels heavy with the pain I know life will bring my sweet babies.

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    • Embedded in the regret is the heartbreak of knowing that life bring’s pain and you can’t protect your sweet babies from that pain. If you could unravel the regret, you would find grief in the center, and if you could access those tears the regret would fade away.

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      • Thank you. And yes, tears have been shed… yet I still ruminate. I’ll try to sit with the feelings a bit more and let them pass through me, instead of meeting them with resistance and rationalizations.

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        • That’s really the work, over and over and over again. We defense and protect and resist and then we soften and weep…

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          • Might I ask, what is on the other side of that softening? Acceptance?

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            • Yes, exactly. A softening into and acceptance of “what is”.

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              • Beautiful. Thank you 🙂

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  7. “Had I not gone to Brazil, it’s quite likely that I would not be sitting here with you today. Although maybe I would. This is, again, on some level my ego wanting to make sense of and make peace with the pain of life. The real freedom arrives when I remember to sit in the groundlessness of being human.”

    Wow, Sheryl. Yes to this. “If only I had/hadn’t…” is probably my biggest intrusive thought. Thank you so much for writing a blog post about it. I (and others) typically respond to this thought with “Well if I hadn’t done X, I likely wouldn’t be the person I am today/be with the person I’m with/have the job I have/etc.” But while that response is probably true in some sense and is semi-comforting, it isn’t really the point.

    “This is, again, on some level my ego wanting to make sense of and make peace with the pain of life. ”

    ^THIS Is the point. By saying “I wouldn’t be doing X if I hadn’t done Y” is my ego trying to control my outer circumstances. It’s a pretty false comfort because the truth is I don’t know if not doing Y would have always resulted in X. I’ll never know that. I guess I have to just make peace with what is. It just hurts.

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    • It’s one of our biggest challenge as human beings: learning to sit in the unknown.

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  8. In regards to point #3 in the article:

    How can I connect more to trusting the flow of life? In believing in the natural goodness and wisdom of the universe? And tapping into that confidence that all is as it should be?

    Sheryl, thank you for all your work. I tune in each week. 🙂

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  9. So timely, Sheryl, thank you. I am a newly wed and while my husband was somewhat open to having a third child (we each have one from a previous relationship) earlier in our dating life, with time and age (he is now in his late forties and me in my early 40’s) he has changed his mind and this door is now closed for him. This has brought some grief, some acceptance, some relief, some sadness, some longing, some anxiety, and some confusion for me as I thought I would be having a second child in a “proper” family setting without the pain and devastation of joint custody. Naturally thoughts of “what if” and ” if only” and “did i make the right choice?” have bubbled up but this post is a soothing balm to my soul. I have done the best I could with all the information I had each step of the way and here we are on the other side of the wedding day. I cant get lost in a tail spin of regret and mental self harm. This is a good reminder.

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    • I’m so glad the post offered a soothing balm to the mental self-harm, which regret indeed is. If the thoughts pipe up again, as they likely will, you can always return to the post as a reminder of what you already know.

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  10. Hi Sheryl, I find that after years of counselling and at least attempted healing practices, I still struggle to commit and follow through with the work/plan on my own. If I don’t have fear or that person to hold me accountable I don’t maintain things or feel the motivation to. Sometimes I constantly have the thought “what’s the point” challenging everything I think and do. I don’t understand why and I don’t know where to go from here. There are so many practices I should be doing I feel more lost now. Where can I look or start?

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    • Resistance is probably our most powerful obstacle to growth, and that’s the place to start: name the resistance, personify it, work with it. I know that sounds impossible to work with the very force that is preventing you from doing the work, but that’s what you must do. And know that you are stronger than the resistance. Also explore your beliefs around growth, taking responsibility, and around committing to your own inner work. When people are controlled by resistance there’s often a subtle yet pervasive belief that says something like, “I want someone else to do it for me,” or “If I heal I’m letting my parents off the hook.”

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  11. This. This is THE theme of my intrusive thoughts ever since I got engaged. For years I’ve felt “regret” for not having shared my engagement anxiety with my now husband. I look back on that time so often and feel nothing but shame, regret and guilt over it. The shame actually says, “You felt so much resistance to marrying him. Shame on you. You basically lived out a lie.” And it’s so convincing.

    So is the work to see what is happening PRESENTLY that those thoughts are trying to protect me from feeling? Oddly I feel like the answer is accepting what is. Life on life’s terms. Finding a way to feel the grief of life.

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    • You got it: “Oddly I feel like the answer is accepting what is. Life on life’s terms. Finding a way to feel the grief of life.” Yes, yes, yes. It’s amazing how much wisdom we carry when we slow down enough to listen :).

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  12. This is what I get caught in with trusting the universe…. how can I have faith in the universe-in a life that provides “what’s meant to be”… when there are people that die on street corners with a needle in their arms? How can I have faith in a loving universe when there are so many terrible things that happen to innocent people, every day? This is part of why I put so much responsibility for what happened in my marriage on myself- because I believe all that I CAN control is myself and my choices.
    Where do you find the balance between accepting “what is” and owning what is “your’s” in a universe that actually seems to be quite ambivalent?

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  13. I am still struggling with this. I have regret of not living the college experience (living on campus, making friends, going to parties, dating, living alone, ect). I dedicated my time to school work and my boyfriend at the time who is now my husband. I have a fear that I missed out on all of this and stunted my growth. I feel like I have to leave my husband to go find myself since I did not work on finding myself in college. I love my husband, but I am terrified I will always have this longing and that I will never be at peace. I picture myself leaving him and putting myself in situations that are out of my comfort zone. I picture myself meeting new people and dating other men. These feelings terrify me because they feel so real. I love my husband and I want all this longing and regret to go away. I am even scared of trying new things for fear of realizing I truly don’t want to be with my husband. I fear that I am lying to myself and that I am not following my intuition. I fear I am with my husband for the wrong reasons. I fear I will never be content with life unless I leave and experience what I missed out on. I fear that I may not be following my heart. I wish there was a magic pill that could make all this disappear. The thought of having an open marriage has come into my mind and it terrifies me because what if this is a sign that I really do want to leave my husband. I love my husband and I don’t want to have these terrible feelings. Are feelings real? Do I make a decision based on what I am feeling? If I was with someone else or had experienced the college life would I still feel this way? So many questions.

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    • Sandra,
      You basically just summed up my life! I just wanted you to know that it brings me some comfort in knowing I’m not alone and I’m hoping it brings you some comfort too and I hope we both can find peace and healing in these questions and feelings.

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      • Hi Kristen,
        Thank you for reaching out. It is comforting to know I am not alone. I hope you are doing well and wish you luck in your healing process. I am still struggling and with all the craziness going on with COVID-19 I feel like I have hit a bump in my healing process.

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    • Sandra- I had many of the worries and intrusive thoughts that you did. I spent all of my college experience focusing on school and my boyfriend. I just wanted to tell you, hold onto your husband tight. There was a period of time where my boyfriend and I had broken up for about a month because we were not connecting and I didn’t know what to do anymore. Living without him was miserable. A piece of myself was gone, and I didn’t want to go out and “find it” because I realized he was my piece all along. We’ve since gotten back together after some couples therapy and are stronger than ever. Don’t doubt the beautiful love you have. Everything in life has happened the way it’s supposed to <3

      Reply

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