“I never thought this would happen to me. I didn’t think life would turn out this way. If only I hadn’t [fill in the blank].” These are words of disappointment and regret I hear from clients. I don’t know any person who doesn’t use those phrases from time to time. Life happens, and generally not the way we planned or hoped.
Nobody knows this better than someone living with HIV. The disease can bring up all kinds of thoughts and feelings about what you thought your life would be.
Disappointment is the perception you didn’t get what you wanted and the wish that things had turned out differently. Regret is wishing you made different choices. Disappointment can leave you feeling your life is out of control. With regret, you give yourself the power, but also the blame. Either way, disappointment and regret leave you wishing your life were anything but what it is. They go hand in hand with anger, sadness, and guilt.
It’s important to remember that disappointment and regret are stops along the road when living with HIV, not places you want to stay. Here’s what to do when you feel disappointment and regret closing in on you:
Let yourself just feel. When phrases like “if only” and “I never thought” creep into your thoughts and speech, don’t judge yourself for not having the “right” attitude—or hold it all in and hope the disappointment or regret go away on its own. Talk with someone who won’t judge you.
Don’t avoid the “Why me?” question. Disappointment and regret often lead to the ultimate question: “Why me?” That can be a scary question because it brings up painful feelings. Most likely, you will find the answer is that there isn’t an answer. So why keep asking, right? Well, because it’s only human to question why and to take a look at your life and what living with HIV means. For that reason, asking “Why me?” is a milestone along the road to acceptance.
Recognize the blame game. Disappointment usually lays the blame on something outside yourself. Regret lays the blame on your own doorstep. Either way, blame is a losing proposition, because you spin the same story over and over, trying to explain the unexplainable. In the meantime, life is happening all around you.
Think of acceptance as “Here I am. Now what can I do?” This is going with the flow instead of struggling against the tide. Decide to focus on what’s possible in your life, beginning with what you can do right now to have a better day.
Start each day with gratitude. One of the best antidotes to negative feelings is reminding yourself of what’s good. Focusing on the positive can “rewire” your brain to see the big picture.
Be compassionate to yourself. Give yourself credit for having challenges and doing the best you can. Give yourself a break. And remember, you’ve got too much going on to spend time on disappointment and regret.
GARY McCLAIN, Ph.D., is a counselor in New York City with a specialty in coping with chronic health conditions. His books include The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Breaking Bad Habits and Empowering Your Life With Joy.