Dealing with Regret in Sobriety
Regret, in some form, is a part of the human experience. We make mistakes, we maybe feel bad about them for a little while, and then we (hopefully) learn from them and move on. But for those of us who have been questioning our drinking and realize that alcohol is playing too large of a role, those feelings of regret find new intensity. Regret in sobriety is normal, but it can feel overwhleming. Reframing and having the tools to deal with it can help.
Connor, the Senior Manager of Coaching at Tempest, says that regret was a constant part of his life when he drank. “I would wake up in the morning and immediately start piecing together what had happened the night before,” he says. “One night, a friend and I were talking about a party they had been to and they said, ‘I’m worried I didn’t represent myself how I would want to.’”
That sentiment hit Conor in “just the right spot” and enabled him to shift his perspective when it came to drinking: “It isn’t that I am bad, or broken, or messed up—which is how I would often feel—it was simply that I wanted to make different choices,” he explains.
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That morning-after regret isn’t the only type that’s related to alcohol, though. There’s also the kind that comes up after quitting drinking. When we quit drinking and can clearly see how alcohol impacted our lives, it’s easy to get caught up in what we might have done differently. With clear-headed hindsight on our side, we can see how alcohol impacted relationships or life choices. This is the kind of regret that can quickly turn to shame if we don’t have the tools to work with it.
It’s impossible to reverse or prevent feelings of regret. What we can do, however, is try to work through the feelings so we can move past them—and hopefully even learn something from them. In this article, we’ll hear from folks in recovery as well as experts on dealing with regret.
“I missed a lot of moments and milestones.”
Trevor, who no longer drinks, says that the years of drinking left him with a lot of feelings of regret. “I damaged my marriage, friendships, family relationships, work relationships, and … I missed out on things like watching my daughter grow and learn when she was a baby,” he explains. “I missed a lot of moments and milestones—and the things that I didn’t miss, I took for granted.”
While Trevor doesn’t think he’s fully moved past these regrets quite yet, he says he’s learned to forgive himself—at least for the most part. He hopes therapy and more self-reflection will take him the rest of the way there.
“Talking about [my experience] with people that love and support me has been the biggest help for me,” Trevor says. “I think being able to joke about it and make fun has been a good way for me to bring light to a hard situation has also helped me.”
“I lived a double life.”
“Regret and guilt go hand in hand,” Lori, who’s been alcohol-free for four and a half years, says. “Almost daily, at some point I can get a ‘rush’ of guilt that comes over me—something will happen or something could be said and that often will trigger these feelings in me.”
Lori’s feelings of regret aren’t as strong as they used to be, but they’re still there.
“I have a 31-year-old daughter who is the light of my life. I divorced when I was pregnant with her, so in every possible way, I was a single mom,” says Lori. “Things really took a turn for the worst when she was in high school … I lived a double life.”
When Lori’s daughter was at school, she would do things she “would never, ever do sober” before trying to be “mom of the year” at home. Eventually, Lori’s daughter pulled away.
“She knew her mom was up to no good, but we never spoke of it,” Lori says. As much as the distance hurt Lori, she didn’t decide to quit drinking until the cousin she lived with, who was also very close with her daughter, told her to “clean up or get out.” Lori chose the former and says “it was the best thing anyone has ever done for me.”
In the years since quitting drinking, which she did with the help of a 12-step program, Lori says she and her daughter’s relationship has improved dramatically.
“She’s comfortable talking and sharing her fears and struggles with me. This would not have ever happened if I were not sober,” Lori says. “I know I can’t ever change my past, but I can learn from my many mistakes and not repeat them.”
“When I got sober, I was filled with regret.”
Carol stopped drinking 33 years ago at age 41. “At the time of my drinking, I didn’t have many regrets—they came after. When I got sober, I was filled with regret,” she says. “Regret that I couldn’t have done some of my life differently.”
As a mother of four daughters, Carol felt lots of expectations of what she “should and shouldn’t have been doing.” “I felt I missed out on so much of my daughters’ lives. I provided for all their basic needs, [but] emotionally was a different story,” she says. “I didn’t listen to them very much. I yelled a lot and expected a lot from them.”
Now, after three decades of life without alcohol, Carol deals with those feelings of regret by sharing her experiences, strength, and hope with others through her 12-step program.
“There will come along a woman just like me who regrets the mistakes she made while drinking and hears the message of hope,” she says, “and [realizes] that she too can recover and do her life clean and sober, free from alcohol or drugs.”
How to Work Through Regret in Sobriety
1. Treat yourself with compassion as you would anyone else.
“Imagine if someone you loved had made the choice that you are now regretting. Would you be as hard on them as you are on yourself?” Connor suggests asking yourself. “Now, imagine that someone who loves you is coaching you through this moment and try to see yourself as they see you.”
If you can see yourself more clearly and remember that you’re trying your best, that might help some of the more painful aspects of regret dissipate.
2. Make sure you’re coping with feelings of shame, too.
According to “The Sober Therapist” Lynn Matti, LPC, “coping with the shame of regret” is one of the most important pieces of moving past feelings of regret.
“When we have a history of overusing a highly addictive substance like alcohol, we also need to prepare for the shame that typically surrounds recalling our actions and behaviors during intoxication as well as when we were sobering up,” she says. “Shame is the result of many hours of silent rumination piled on top of years of living without any way to safely express your truest feelings about a situation, another person, or yourself.”
Self-acceptance (which Matti explains below) can help you cut yourself some slack and relieve that shame.
3. Build your self-acceptance skills.
Self-acceptance can be a key part of “calm[ing] the chatter of regret,” Matti says.
Learning self-acceptance might come through finding a supportive community to celebrate progress and help you feel less alone, practicing affirmations (like “I am strong enough to handle this”) to reinforce positive declarations about who you are and what you have to offer the world. It might also come from working with a therapist or recovery coach to help you manage negative thought patterns and remember your worth.
However you get to self-acceptance, Matti has this advice: “Focus on affirming who you are, your strengths, and positive characteristics instead of impulsively or compulsively trying to ‘fix’ or ‘self-improve.”
4. See how you can learn from your experiences.
Reframing how you think about regret can also be a very powerful tool. We can choose—with some practice and guidance—to see our past experiences as information to better inform the kind of future we create for ourselves.
“We can cut ourselves a lot of slack by being oriented on how we will create a life that we don’t want to numb out of instead of focusing on all the ways we wish we had done something different in the past,” Connor says. “By looking forward into the future, we discover that our experiences are informative … None of our efforts go to waste on this path.”
In this way, regret becomes a barometer rather than something that keeps us stuck. Before we make a decision, we can ask ourselves if the decision might cause us regret in the future. We do that by looking at similar situations from our past. Regret then becomes a tool in our sobriety toolbox.
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Regret is an inevitable part of life, but you have the power to control how you respond to it. Take the time you need to feel what you’re feeling without judging yourself, then consider connecting with a community of like-minded people—whether it’s a self-help group or an online community like Tempest’s. Additionally, working with a therapist or other expert so you can acknowledge those feelings and move on makes a big difference. Past mistakes can be painful, but they can also serve as tools for growth rather than bring you down.