After the dust settles, the divorce is final, the body is buried, or the child has moved far away, you may be tempted to wonder if you made a mistake. Was it wrong to divorce someone who abused you? Was it poor judgment to estrange yourself from a toxic parent or sibling? Should you have insisted your child go to college in town?
If you feel bereft, lonely, or at sea, it is very easy to second-guess your choices and jump to self-downing conclusions. Luckily, a passing thought born from grief is not necessarily the truth.
No one leaves a happy marriage. In 30 years of private practice I have never seen a couple split up cavalierly. Typically, there were years of estrangement, incompatibility, and even contempt.
If you are torturing yourself with all the “what ifs,” stop. No one seeks out strife and misery. No one tears himself away from family without many years of deep disappointment and psychic pain. There’s a built-in biological imperative to stay connected to family, no matter how challenging the situation. If you are re-writing history with a happy ending you believe would have occurred if only you had done X, Y, or Z, instead of A, B, or C, stop. You’re deluding yourself. If you are estranged it’s because things were so painful it came down to one unhappy choice or another. Stay in the relationship and feel victimized or detach for the promise of greater peace. One day, you realized the other person wasn’t going to change. You could either accept their behavior or depart. If you left, took a hiatus, or limited contact, you did so for good reasons.
(Just for the record, I don’t think anyone wakes up in the morning, rubs his hands together, and says, “How can I drive my child or parents crazy?” But even without malice, there’s the law of unintended consequences. For example, if someone has an uncontrollable arm spasm that results in inadvertently punching you in the nose, their intention is of little interest when you’re in the ER, yet again, with another broken nose. So, yes, it’s important not to blame or damn them for their behavior; but, it’s prudent to stay out of harm’s way.)
As for all the other should-haves, could-haves, and would-haves, they’re irrelevant. You did what you did for compelling reasons at the time. Trying to put yourself back in that mind-set and re-write history, from your present vantage point only causes pain and suffering. (I have seen a number of people who erroneously think they should go back to their mate only to find it ends up hurting both of them far more when they realize their initial decision was correct.)
Misery can easily catalyze doubt in even the surest of hearts. No one is 100% convinced of any big decision they made because things are grey, not black and white. So, on a good day, you might feel quite confident the best is yet to come, and on a bad one you can’t imagine things improving. It’s certainly not uncommon to get so lonely that the most toxic, co-dependent relationship looks like an appealing option. Be strong, those feelings will pass and you will become more self-reliant, self-soothing, and self-loving. It’s a process and can’t happen overnight. Be patent with all your moods and competing thoughts. They are a natural consequence of an enormous life change.
One benefit of aging (at least, in theory) is you gain perspective and wisdom. Unfortunately, when in the middle of a down period, whether it lasts a few minutes or a few days, it is easy to forget everything you’ve learned and just focus on your current bleak viewpoint. That’s when using all the techniques at your disposal makes sense. If you aren’t up for that, OK; but, make peace with the part of you that wants a break from practicing positive thinking. Later on, or tomorrow, you will want to make an effort, and you’ll feel better.
Of course, it is natural to examine your past behavior so you can make better choices in the future; but, that is a far cry from putting yourself down for past decisions.
Perhaps, if you had it to do all over again, you would have divorced your mate earlier, or moved 3,000 miles away from toxic family. Those ships have sailed. You are here now, the sum of all your decisions. Why not believe everything happens for your highest good? Just because you are lonely, grief-stricken, or living on less doesn’t mean you made a mistake. It simply shows how everything has consequences. Use the time now to accept your choices. They were based on years of experience and intuition. Typically, those enormous life-changing shifts came because it felt as if you had to act or give up.
Monday morning quarterbacking, full of self-recrimination, will only make you feel awful and insecure. You did exactly what you should have done at the time based on who you were and what you knew.
I don’t believe you need to forgive yourself for being human, but if you do, extend an olive branch to yourself. If it helps you abandon the fantasy that everything would be peachy if only you had done something else, go for it.
On the other hand, giving yourself the love and acceptance you sought from that husband, wife, parent, or child, will make you feel exponentially better and prevent you from attaching yourself to the next warm body who promises to love and cherish you.
As the yogis say: All that you seek is already within you. You can love and cherish yourself. Imagine whom you might attract with that karma.
Copyright Nicole S. Urdang
Second-guessing Yourself December 2, 2009