For the past 25 years as a psychologist, I have had the privilege and opportunity to be in consultation with individuals at various stages of the aging process. My patients ranged in age from the early ’50s to the early ’90s. I visited individuals in skilled nursing facilities, assisted living facilities, their homes, and in my office. My interventions were often focused on the following problem…remorse.
A significant number of my patients lived with the emotional burden of remorse. They felt guilt mostly about family situations. They felt remorse about being overly busy with several activities in life and not spending more quality time with their spouses, partners, and children.
They had remorse about behaviors that were detrimental to themselves and others in their lives, i.e., alcohol use, drugs, not managing their finances, having affairs, not taking care of their health, being mean and angry without provocation, being spiteful for long periods about minor issues, passing up relationships, career. Or financial opportunities due to negligence or indecision, not being more actively involved in experiences with their children and grandchildren.
The focus of my consultation with these individuals was often to focus on erasing or letting go of negative, self-incriminating thinking, i.e., “what was wrong with me, how could I be so stupid, why was I so stubborn, what was I thinking at that time, why couldn’t I be more considerate, I could be so much better off now, no wonder I am so alone now.”
I would encourage these folks to replace these thoughts with more self-soothing, positive thinking focusing on what they felt grateful for in life, what they had now in life rather than what they didn’t have or were missing, and what they could still do with their time in life to enrich themselves and others.
An exercise I would encourage was for them to imagine themselves as a young person just leaving a fair or amusement park with a beautiful, special balloon in their hand when suddenly they stumbled, and the balloon went out of their hand, flying up into the clear blue sky, sailing ever higher and away from them.
To remember the sad feeling as they watched helplessly and with remorse for having let go of the balloon, saying to themselves, “if only I would have watched where I was walking, if only I had held the balloon tighter, I would still have my balloon!” However, the balloon was gone; it wasn’t coming back. They could let go of the balloon and the remorse and move on to the next event in life.
As a follow up to this exercise, I like to encourage my patients to imagine putting their remorseful thoughts into a helium balloon and letting it go out into the universe further and further away, then focusing their thoughts on the present, next activity in life. Fortunately, a significant number of my patients have been able to utilize these concepts and find life to be more calm, peaceful, and rewarding.
Hugh Pates is a Past President and Fellow of SDPA. He is an experienced clinician working with the older adult population.