Stop Looking on Past Loves with Regret

Photo by Road Trip with Raj on Unsplash

How often do you look upon your past loves with bitterness or regret? How often do you think of a past love and wish it hadn’t happened? Maybe it was a one night stand you thought would turn into something more. Maybe you loved him with all your heart to find out he cheated on you. Maybe she left you for someone else. Does it eat you up inside, how much energy you spent on that man, that woman, whomever, only to be betrayed?

Or maybe you were the one who was wrong. Maybe you had the perfect partner, and you just couldn’t see it. Maybe you had your soulmate, and you let him go. And now, when you look back with so much clarity at all that you’d missed before, your chest starts to ache with the weight of your regret. And when you look forward, at other potential partners, you can’t help but compare them. Can’t help but think that they’ll never measure up to what he was, what she was.

It’s a kind of thinking that’s almost requisite in our culture. The necessary setup to the happy ending in all of our Hollywood romances. The catchy lyrics in our favorite breakup songs. According to pop culture, we should look on all of our previous relationships and either disdain the person we were with or lament ever having lost them. But this thinking is destroying us. By engaging in the cycle of these destructive emotions, we are re-breaking our own hearts. Again and again, we are opening old wounds, keeping the cuts from healing. And every time we do so, we reinforce the behavior so that it becomes easier to do it again.

I’m not saying that negative emotions don’t have their place. All emotions have a function. But, like anything, excessive indulgence of any one emotion becomes a destructive habit. Regret is meant to teach us a lesson about what was lacking in a situation. Once that lesson has been learned, regret should be released. Similarly, bitterness is meant to teach us a lesson about what is lacking in ourselves. But again, once we have learned that lesson, we must move on. How do we do so? By relinquishing our bitterness and regret and replacing them with love and — most of all — gratitude.

The Miracle Drug for Emotional Healing

Practicing gratitude helps us heal, helps us grow, and helps us foster our own happiness. Gratitude is the single practice that can change everything in your life. I’ve written on it before, as have many, many others. Gratitude is the surest way to turn your bitterness into contentment and even joy. It takes dedication and discipline. Our negative emotions want to rule us. It requires constant vigilance to avoid allowing them to do so.

I’ll give you a case study from my own life. The greatest relationship of my life, to date, spanned 5 years. We never had explosive fights. We almost always approached disagreements with patience and love. We always expressed appreciation for one other. We were always supportive of one another. It was a beautiful relationship, and it was an excruciating experience when it ended. Excruciating and incredibly eye-opening. Despite all the love and support and appreciation between us, there were problems neither of us could see until it was too late.

It was one of the most painful periods of my life, and the hardest breakup I’d ever been through, but we remained friends. We stayed involved in each other’s lives, continued working together, maintained our shared activities. We live in different countries now, but that does not in any way lessen the love we have for one another. If we were in the same town, I have no doubt that we could easily date again, or even marry.

How do you look back on such an experience and not feel regret? How do you not fall into the “we could have had it all” spiral? I would be lying if I said I’ve never had those moments. Sometimes when I think about that relationship, I worry that I’ll never experience such a thing again. I think, “If only I had been able to see the problems, maybe we would still be together.”

If you’ve had those thoughts, you know what tends to happen next. The heaviness of regret and the pain of bitterness latches on. It pulls and pulls, dragging you down. And the deeper you allow yourself to be dragged under those emotions, the more difficult it is to come back from them. But the truth is, all of this despair is based on a lie. We’re creating absolutes, assuming omniscience, when really we know nothing. The world is full of infinite potential, and our experiences make up a tiny fraction of what’s possible.

I never predicted that 5-year relationship, and neither can I predict the potential relationships I have ahead of me. I also never predicted the problems that arose, nor is there any way for me to predict what other problems might have come up in their place. Our temptation to blindly latch onto one possibility out of the infinite universe of potential is simply an act of desperation, the ego’s misguided attempt at taking control. But if we turn to gratitude, instead, we both release the negative omniscience bias and open our hearts to love. We heal ourselves, rather than reinjure ourselves.

How to Rehabilitate Your Heart

It takes an amount of concerted effort and discipline to teach yourself to look on the past with gratitude, especially when your habit has been to look on the past with regret. The good news, however, is that it is just a matter of practice. Even if the feeling isn’t there at first, if you keep practicing the thoughts, you’ll eventually find yourself feeling lighter, more joyful, and more empowered, as well. Don’t believe me? Here’s a breakdown of how it has worked for me.

Take, for instance, the idea, “I’ll never experience love like that again.”

This statement isn’t just negative, it’s self-defeating and counterproductive. It’s throwing in the towel before the match even gets started. What’s worse, it’s doing a disservice to a great relationship.

What I’m tempted to think this way, I turn it around and tell myself, instead, “I am so fortunate, so blessed, to have experienced a love like that. To know what a true, kind, supportive love looks like and feels like.”

How much more freeing is this? If you’ve experienced love in a really pure and wholesome way, you have experienced something that many people haven’t. You are beyond lucky, beyond blessed, and you should count yourself as such. Then not only are you giving your experience and previous partner the appreciation they deserve, but you’re changing the way that you think about yourself — you stop thinking of yourself as unlucky and defeated and start thinking of yourself as fortunate and positive.

How about the “If I had only known” trap? “If I had only known ‘X’, I could have avoided ‘Y’.”

Maybe so. Or maybe you wouldn’t have avoided Y. Maybe some other factor would have come up. Or maybe you would have avoided “Y” only for “Z” to happen. Again, there’s any number of possibilities. So instead of this futile thinking, what if you instead practiced thinking, “I am grateful to know now what I didn’t know then. I am grateful to have learned from the experience, that I can carry it with me into future relationships.”

How much more positive, more empowering, is this mode of thought? No longer are you focusing on what you’ve lost, but you’re recognizing what you’ve gained. And not only that, you’re putting yourself in an action-oriented frame of mind. You’re focusing on the knowledge that you gained and — critically — what you can with that knowledge to improve yourself and your future relationships.

But what if you haven’t experienced love in a positive way? What if you’re one of those people with a knack for getting into destructive romances? Toxic relationships? In that case, it’s even more critical to form habits of gratitude and positive thinking — especially in relation to yourself. All of our negative habits are some form of self-preservation, although it doesn’t always seem that way. But understanding these habits and being grateful for the purpose they are intended to serve helps us to recognize them for what they are — and then leave them behind.

If you’ve only ever experienced toxic relationships, you have a strength and resilience that many don’t. Appreciate yourself, be grateful to yourself for getting you through those past romances, and appreciate those romances for what they’ve taught you about toxic people. How much stronger can you become now, after having those experiences?

You may not feel it, at first. But if you keep practicing the thoughts, the feeling will come. You will begin to notice that you are lighter, that you can let things go, that you are more free. And we are all meant to be free.

A model/writer/performer/creator, based in Tokyo, Japan. A lover of philosophy, physicality, and — especially — food with friends.

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