Oct 3, 2013 | By Tim Powers

Regret and Its Role in Recovery

Relapse Prevention



Emotional balance is essential for well-being, especially for those in recovery. Because the crutch of the substance has been removed, those who are in recovery have little opportunity to run away from those negative emotions that provide formidable roadblocks.  Regret is one of those strong and negative emotional states that can run riot for those starting to negotiate the path of sobriety.  How does regret fit into the recovery picture and what can we learn from regret?

The Definition of Regret

As defined in Psychology Today, regret is a negative cognitive and emotional state that involves blaming ourselves or a bad outcome. There is a feeling of loss at what might have been or wishes that we could’ve somehow undone previous choices that we had made. The feelings of regret are front and center in recovery.  As addicts, we spent a portion of our lives making poor choice after poor choice while under the influence of the substance of our choice.  Once there is clarity, those past decisions and indiscretions burn deep in our conscience.

There are obvious feelings of regret and remorse for what was laid bare in the aftermath of those bad decisions, especially those involving relationships with family and friends.  There are also those feelings of regret of those things that could have been—maybe things would have been different if X, Y and Z would’ve happened.  Those feelings of regret are constantly looping those past moments over and over again to the point of mental exhaustion.

In her article “The Psychology of Regret,” psychologist Melanie Greenberg points out that over short time periods, people are more likely to regret actions taken while over longer periods of time people tend to regret actions not taken.  While regret can have value in motivating corrective actions, gaining insight and avoiding future negative behaviors, the flipside is that regret can trigger chronic stress.  That chronic stress can have adverse effects on both the hormonal and immune systems.

Coping with Regret

How does a person in recovery cope with regret and turn those negative aspects into a learning mechanism to improve the future?  Greenberg offers the following points:

  1. Harness the Functional Aspects—our emotions have survival functions. In the case of regret, our brain is telling us that we need take another look at the choices that we make.  It is a well-worn cliché’ but it’s true:  what happened in the past is in the past.  Instead of ruminating on those bad choices, acknowledge those mistakes, learn from them and move on.  Regret is a major motivator for people to get into recovery.
  2. Let it Go—as stated in the first point-what’s in the past is still there.  If one gets stuck in the rut of self-blame it can turn into depression and can lower self-esteem.  In that regret mode, it is often easier to forgive others then oneself
  3. How Much Blame?—in recovery, we need to take into account the circumstances in which those bad decisions were created and carried out.  With addiction is can be tricky because while the addiction was pulling the strings, we were carrying out the actions.  Acknowledgment is key, as well as time.
  4. Reframing the Situation—recovery like life is a journey.  Learning from our mistakes can afford the recovering person opportunities to learn important lessons about self, ways of reacting, vulnerabilities, triggers and about other people.

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