Looking back without regret

One of the joys of living in rural Northumberland is being able to feel the movement of the seasons. If you regularly walk the same paths, you become familiar in a very intimate way with the small changes. It makes me aware that whilst we talk of the drama of the seasons, it is often a slow, imperceptible change from one to another. Walking recently I was reminded of a famous poem by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

The Road Not Taken has become a famous poem about choosing an alternative path, "plowing your own furrow". It is a poem about indecision, and regret. We all, in life, make choices, sometimes willingly, sometimes knowingly, at other times because of external pressures. We may not even be aware that a choice is being made, or that it will impact on us down through the years. In the poem, Frost is speaking first of the refusal to choose because we are afraid we may make the wrong decision. The fear that the grass is always greener on the other path can paralyse.

Often part of the benefit of therapy is accepting the road you are on now, letting go of the regret for the choice made in the past, even if that does mean grieving for lives that were never lived. This grieving can be especially strong if it involves anger at others who we feel made choices for us.

Consider Helen* for example, a middle-aged mother who has started counselling after realising she is struggling as her last child has left for university. During the sessions it becomes apparent she still carries anger that her parents put her brother in for the 11+ and not her. She loves her partner, her children, her career in retail where she has worked her way up from Saturday girl to regional manager. She has never let go of that other path though - the Helen who went to grammar school, then university. Just as grieving for a person can mean expressing old angers, so can grieving for a life never lived.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

In order to not be telling our life story with a sigh, we need to accept, with an open heart, the choices we have made, and the place we have arrived at. This does not mean we need to accept abuse, or situations which make us unhappy as simply 'our lot'. The paralysis of indecision can play a part here too though. Standing looking at another path, telling yourself change is impossible because we are caught in a cloud of what if's and if only's.

A technique of CBT is to look at those what if's and drill down to the bedrock, the fear underpinning them. Challenging a statement such as "I am too old to change" can reap rich rewards. To return to our hypothetical client, via counselling she realises the long suppressed emotions stirred up by her children taking a path denied to her. After exploring these, what is stopping her from embarking on higher education now?

This is another truth Frost expresses in the poem. Why has the traveller decided that both paths cannot be walked? Why are they limiting the choice to some irreversible decision? It is rare in life that we cannot change direction, although it may be hard, and of course income, health and responsibilities will affect our ability to turn back and take another path. All too often though what really holds us back is the fear of change, and the worry we may be judged as having chosen wrongly.

This fear can be challenged by accepting that different choices may be right at different times. If we move away from the idea of only ever being able to chose one path, and regretting the path not taken, we also leave the idea that changing paths is a weakness or a failure behind. Helen does not need to see her life up to now as a failure, or wrong, or a bad choice, to want to try something new, to try a different path. Change does not have to be about rejecting everything that came before, just as the movement from one season to another does not happen in a moment.

* The client examples used are hypothetical and bear no relationship to any actual clients.

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