How I deal with regret in sobriety

Recently in a meeting, the topic of regret was raised.


At first, I didn’t think I could relate. I’m all too familiar with replaying the past, and even hoping for a better one (no luck yet, will keep you posted). However, I tend to call that resentment. I hadn’t realized that, when most of that resentment is directed inwards, the better word for it is “regret.”


Hmmm. Really? Why does that word feel so foreign nowadays? I think it’s because the ball-busting self-help world has talked us out of ever using it. The very fact that a self-reflective person can learn from mistakes means we aren’t even allowed to utter the word regret, much less be anything but grateful for all the mistakes we've made. We are first advised to live a life of no regrets - ideally while backpacking through southeast Asia or opening our own speciality just-for-cats cupcake shop, because it’s “always been a dream.” And when our bank accounts are empty and the cupcake shop goes under - turns out cats don’t buy that many cupcakes - we are advised to simply add the “learning experience” to our resume. No. Damn. Regrets!


As a culture, we’ve collectively yelled “I CAN’T HEAR YOU” at regret. But here’s the thing: the phenomenon didn’t just go away. If that worked, I’d also yell “I CAN’T HEAR YOU” at resentment, boredom, and the new pick for the Bachelorette. (Which, if you haven’t been watching, is Hannah B. I mean. Are you kidding me.)


So what happens to regret, if it doesn’t just go away when you yell at it? At the meeting, I had something of a revelation of where mine had been hiding. You know that feeling when you lose your keys, and you turn the house upside down trying to find them? If you’re me, you’ll scour every unlikely nook and cranny of your purse or the kitchen cabinets to avoid looking where your keys actually probably are. Where they always are: The driver's seat of your locked car. Or maybe the center console - but still definitely locked in your car. I've even heard of some people locking their keys in the car twice in the same day. Not me of course, but some people.

Locked my keys in this little joy ride twice in one day.

Anyway, that feeling - walking cautiously up to your car, the sinking sensation of seeing your keys exactly where you didn't want them to be - is what it was like to discover where my regret had been hiding all this time. It wasn’t at the bottom of my purse and I hadn’t stashed it behind the coffee maker. My regret was here with me, right now, playing itself out in my present-day behavior.


I have regrets about how I’ve behaved with friends, family, and partners. These regrets stem from prior to drinking, during drinking, and yes - even after I quit. That’s right. I continued making mistakes post-enlightenment. I want my money back.


There are a few people for whom I wish I had been a different person. I wish I had been more present, more direct, more assertive, firm, kind, and clear. There are people with whom the “end” - whether it was a friendship or a relationship - was unnecessarily messy or bitter or confusing. These are people who I still think about, and the thinking isn't pleasant. Should I re-engage? If I did, it would be in hopes of a different past. Maybe I could do something different this time - or maybe my best thinking got me here.


When you regret the past, you just might find yourself trying to lug it into the present. It’s like the old clothes that you just refuse to give away. Maybe you used to love them, or you got them from someone special, or they’d be practical and just the thing if you were attending a party that was themed "horrible mistakes."


Maybe you’re considering trying another go-round with the same people, places, and things. Or maybe you’re treating the modern-day players in your life as if they’re key, unresolved figures from your past. But here’s the thing: You aren’t the person you were. And when you’re stuck in the past, you don’t get to be the person you are now either. Rather, you’re stuck being some confusing and probably less likable hybrid of the two. You aren’t doing your present self justice.


You know those people who say “I’m sorry” every five seconds - sometimes when they mean “I’m standing here,” other times when they mean “you stepped on my foot,” and still other times when they just mean “hello?”


Those people are scary. I can just smell the issues. And that’s how it feels to be living out my past regret in my present-day behavior. The people who know and love me now don’t deserve that - and neither do I. My goal now is not to pretend these things never happened, that I never caused unhappiness; it's to accept that this happened in the past and then - wait for it - leave it there.

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