Dancing with Your Unlived Life: Living Life Without Regret
Living life without regret is the desire of many who are consumed by past choices, and haunted by thoughts that “it could have been different”.
Strong regret can impact us at any stage of our life journey. The human condition is such that, at any point in our life journeys, we may become haunted by “what could have been”. Or we can feel keenly that we made the wrong choice. Or that we didn’t act, and if only we had, things would have been so much different.
Are there particular stages of life where regret can fasten onto us? Actually we can feel regret at any stage of life. It can hit in a particularly painful, bitter way after the loss of someone we love, however that loss might occur. It is also often potently strong in the second half of life, when individuals very often start to intensively review the whole of their life story, and to try to understand their lives as part of a meaningful pattern.
The Burden of Unlived Life and Regret
C.G. Jung was among the first to speak of the psychological implications of the “unlived life”, though many have since followed him. Here is one of his more famous quotes:
“Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on their environment and especially on their children than the unlived life of the parent.”
Here Jung makes the point that the unlived life of an individual is one of the strongest influences on the environment in which an individual finds him or herself. Jung makes a point of stressing that this unlived life impacts particularly on the lives of the individual’s children. We can assume that the influence Jung is describing is certainly not always for the better.
What Is the “Unlived Life”?
What is this “unlived life”? At its most fundamental level, it relates to who each one of us is. It relates to those possibilities that exist deep within us that we sense we could have lived out, but have not. As Jungian psychologist Robert A. Johnson reminds us, it relates to those feelings we have that there is something we could have done, something we could have experienced — for which some part of us is deeply yearning. This unlived life is often there in those three in the morning waking moments, when we realize a profound sense of longing for something that could have been.
All human beings, no matter how talented or successful, have possibilities contained within them which have not been realized. At least a few of these options, or perhaps quite a significant number, are associated with regret, either explicitly and consciously recognized and acknowledged, or else carried unconsciously, in unacknowledged ways. Sometimes we exert incredible amounts of effort to keep from acknowledging them.
Unlived Possibility: It Wants Something from Us
The weight of these unlived-out possibilities can grow and grow as we move through our lives. This can become so intense that, quite frequently around the middle of life, or sometime after, the issue comes to the fore in an individual’s life in a way that demands a resolution.
Even if the issue doesn’t present in quite so dramatic a manner, the unlived life, and the yearning and regret associated with it, may easily become one of the most important issues in our lives.
Getting Creative with Regret
Needless to say, these feelings are not something that we want to carry in an unbalanced way through the rest of our lives. To imagine living out life in this way might seem intolerable. Is there anything we can do to reduce the sense of loss, grief and regret?
Is there any way that we can engage with this unlived life, and either somehow live it out, or else make our peace with it?
Living Life Without Regret
Individuals often enter /a-midlife-transition seeking in some manner to work with, and come to terms with, the various aspects of the unlived life. They seek to find ways to move beyond regret and grief, and into a creative and life-giving living out of possibilities in the now. Much of this involves coming to terms with and creatively engaging their own life story, and their own personal journey towards wholeness, .
Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Psychoanalyst
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© 2017 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)