Cynthia Occelli knew that something was wrong with her husband—his headaches were just too persistent to be benign. Yet, after a visit to his doctor resulted in a convincing diagnosis of tension headaches, she and her husband went home.
The aneurism struck the very next day.
It wiped out Occelli’s husband’s short-term memory, leaving his recollections of life with her, “garbled and incomplete—like Swiss cheese.”
The experience of caring for a husband who had suddenly become as dependent on her as her children tested Occelli in ways she never expected.
“There is no harder job in the world than caregiving,” says Occelli, a life coach and author of the book, Resurrecting Venus. “It’s almost too bizarre to comprehend.”
Could’ve, should’ve, would’ve…
Occelli uses the word “searing” to describe the remorse she used to feel when looking back on the day she and her husband walked out of the doctor’s office, unaware that their lives would be upended just a few hours later. “I knew something was wrong—but his doctor was so definitive,” she says.
But, regret isn’t limited to life and death circumstances—it comes in many shapes and sizes—and often strikes hardest when we reach middle-age.
We look back and begin to lament the paths not taken, the relationships not pursued, the careers left abandoned because we were called to become mothers, fathers and caregivers.
“We get to a certain point where we wake up one day and think, ‘I should have accomplished something by now—but I haven’t,’” says Alex Lickerman, M.D., author of “The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing An Indestructible Self.”
Finding rebirth in remorse
It was Occelli’s experience in the neurological ICU where her husband was receiving treatment that helped her put out the destructive inferno of remorse that threatened to engulf her.
Getting to know the families of other patients in the ward and watching them come and go as their loved ones passed gave her an enlightened view of the brief nature of life. “The number one wish of people in there [the neurological ICU] is that they had more time to live and be true to themselves,” she says. “I knew that’s what I wanted, and the experience was a call to take it seriously. It gave me a sense of urgency and helped me find my path a lot quicker.”
She and Lickerman offer five strategies for shaking off regret and re-discovering your life path:
Embrace your humanity: “When you feel regret, give yourself a pat on the back—it means you’re emotionally normal,” Occelli says. Only sociopaths are free from remorseful sentiments and accepting your emotions—no matter what they may be—is the first step to dealing with them effectively. It does no good to ignore your thoughts, or stuff your feelings.
Recognize and challenge unproductive thoughts: People prone to regret often look back on their lives and see unrealized potential and unfulfilled dreams. But, it’s impossible to prove that the life you left un-lived would be better than the one you have today. Every life path has its potholes–the challenge is to rise above the negativity. Studies have shown that human happiness is not determined by circumstances themselves as much as by how we interpret and respond to those circumstances. Instead of ruminating about the past, Occelli suggests channeling your imagination into dreams of a better future.
Keep reading to uncover 3 more strategies for dealing with regret…