Regret, Remorse, Self-Forgiveness
There is plenty of regret to go around in a family affected by Sibling Sexual Trauma.
Parents second-guess every decision they made, from innocent life choices that unknowingly allowed the trauma, to their reactions after disclosure that further hurt a child or pushed them away. If only I hadn’t taken that job that left them alone after school…If only we’d kept looking for a house with another bedroom…If only I’d called the police right away…If only I hadn’t called police right away…If only I’d kept my cool instead of freaking out…
People who know they are responsible for causing deep trauma from sexual harm to their sibling carry the weight of guilt as well as regret. What was I thinking???...If only I hadn’t downloaded that app…I didn’t want to hurt him, why didn’t I stop myself?
Survivors look back with the clarity of hindsight and a fuller understanding of the situation and imagine scenarios where they could have saved themselves. Why did I say I liked it?...Why didn’t I scream?...Why did I chicken out and not tell Mom?...Why did I cover up for him when Dad noticed something was up?
Regret is such a painful emotion. We feel regret for choices that brought pain to self or to others or both. Although regret is painful, it is an inevitable part of being human. It isn’t necessarily bad or unhealthy. Only a person with no conscience or no understanding can really live a life with “no regrets.”
Regrets alert us to our mistakes, to choices that did not lead where we intended. When we feel regret, we then face another choice: What to do with our regret. Will we let the regrets be an alarm that prompts us to learn from our mistakes and do better in the future? Will we follow our regrets down a path to remorse and taking responsibility for our actions? Will we use regret to escape reality, to live a life defined by if only…? Will we get stuck in a quicksand of regret and shame? Will we escape responsibility by focusing on the mistakes of others, by turning regret into blame? Will we pivot from regret to a reality-based forgiveness of our past selves?
It’s easy for regret to entrap our minds. We focus on past choices that did not turn out well. We imagine that if we had chosen differently then, things would be better now. Perhaps that is true, but this is always true: We will never know. We can speculate about how things might have turned out, we can imagine where we would be now if we had chosen differently. But those scenarios are not reality. Our assumptions of how things might have turned out are probably skewed toward the positive, toward what we wanted to happen. Our illusions of “what might have been” will never be subject to a reality check.
Healing from regret requires exercising self-compassion. We can ask: Given the situation I was in and the information I had, was it realistically possible for me to have chosen differently?
When we are stuck in regret, we tend to judge our past selves by the standard of our present selves. But our past selves didn’t know everything we know now. Our past self may have been a child with little understanding and limited ability at self-control. Our past self might have had to size up a situation and react quickly, with a brain in fear mode and very little information. Putting our past choices in a realistic context can bring self-forgiveness. Putting the choices of others in a realistic context can help us avoid blame and move toward empathy and forgiveness for their actions as well.
If we take our regrets as a signal for self-examination, we can ask ourselves questions such as: Why did I do that? Is this a pattern for me or was it a one-off? Is there something I need to learn, or understand, or work on so I’m less likely to repeat a similar mistake? Do I need to find ways to keep myself out of similar situations that would be beyond my control? These questions can lead to personal growth and improving our relationship skills.
Most people who have hurt both themselves and others instinctively start with regret for their own pain. With self-reflection, insight, and healing, they can move to empathy and to remorse, which is focused on the pain they caused others. This sets the stage for taking responsibility and for true apology. Some people, in some circumstances, are able to move through this process quickly. Many people take a lot of time and may need outside help to process such difficult emotions and navigate such a difficult process.
Deep regrets may never totally disappear. The pain from the actions we regret may never totally disappear. But we can put our regrets in context and use them to bring growth, healing, and serenity.
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the courage to change the things I can,
and the wisdom to know the difference.
attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr
Josh Coleman Essay (searing, intense, real): What if He Were Your Kid?
Frank Fincham and Ross May: Divine, interpersonal and self-forgiveness
Elisabeth Kubler-Ross developed the Stages of Grief model when working with people living with terminal illness. She includes a section on bargaining. Bargaining is a good term for people who are facing the threat of a future loss. If I’m good, God will spare me…Maybe this treatment will lead to a cure… People who are grieving something that has already happened look backward, so they experience regret instead of “bargaining.”