All humans feel regret. We regret things we did and things we did not do. We also dread the future. This article will focus on regret and how people who have survived severe childhood trauma and now have dissociative identity disorder are affected by it.
What is Regret?
The term regret involves a negative cognitive or emotional state, including blaming yourself for bad outcomes and feeling loss or sorrow over what could have been or wishing you could undo a choice you made.
For children, regret can help them focus and take corrective actions or pursue a different way to handle a situation. But if a child is in a situation where they have little or no chance to change the situation, they find themselves in regret turns into rumination and triggers stress damaging their psyche and their bodies.
Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of people who feel regret, researchers have found that participants performed specific computer tasks that asked them to choose between several options for investing money.
When the participants were shown that they could have done better using alternative options, the researchers found a decreased activity in the ventral striatum, which is associated with processing rewards. Interestingly, there was also an increase in activity in the amygdala, which is part of the limbic system that acts as an alarm system for danger and decides whether the threat is real.
Regret, they concluded, changes how our brains function. These changes are grave in children and can be a reason that traumatized surviving adults have memory and fear response problems.
Dissociative Identity Disorder and Regret
Regret has a way of haunting survivors with dissociative identity disorder and often makes survivors miserable by keeping them locked in the past. Regret also causes survivors to project regret into the future in an attempt to change the past.
Regret happens when you want what happened to change to something else.
Perhaps you feel you could have avoided the abuse if you hadn’t been such a bad child or had fought back. The cognitive dissonance between what was and what you wanted causes internal conflict or projection into the future, which can never lead to meaningful fulfillment.
The truth? The Facts? You cannot go back in time to change anything, but your regret over what happened tells you that you could have done anything to stop the abuse.
When you have dissociative identity disorder, you may find yourself mired in a sea of regret that holds you down. We have discovered that your brain is not functioning correctly, making matters worse.
The amygdala controls your fight/flight/freeze/fawn response, and since yours is damaged, you still live with the consequences of instinctual responses to the trauma you survived in childhood. Your child self was overwhelmed and learned to harness the fight/flight/freeze/fawn response, but today, when the danger is over, your amygdala is still looking for that danger.
Because of cognitive dissonance and an overactive amygdala, your reaction is to feel often crippling regret which is just as overwhelming as the original abuse.
The Lingering Effects of Childhood Trauma
If you are in denial about whether your childhood experiences are causing you to regret, the following discussion may clarify your thoughts.
There are many lingering effects of the abuse you endured as a child, too many to list entirely in this piece. However, we shall explore two of the major effects.
Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Although some adults can also have CPTSD, the formation of complex post-traumatic stress disorder is often caused by severe and repeated trauma in childhood. People living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder have all the symptoms of PTSD plus some other symptoms as follows:
Feeling on edge
Feeling shame and guilt
Problems with emotional regulation
Feeling disconnected from others
Having a negative outlook on the present and future
As stated, these are only a few of the symptoms that people with CPTSD put up with. Regret leads to feeling bad about oneself and exacerbates the symptoms of CPTSD.
Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). DID is a traumagenic disorder resulting from extreme and repeated childhood abuse from which there was no escape. DID shares the characteristics of complex post-traumatic stress disorder, but survivors experience the presence of alternate selves.
According to the DSM-5, there are five criteria for DID.
Disruption of identity is characterized by two or more distinct personality states, which may be described in some cultures as an experience of possession. The disruption of marked discontinuity in the sense of self and sense of agency, accompanied by related alterations in effect, behavior, consciousness, memory, perception, cognition, and/or sensory-motor functioning. These signs and symptoms may be observed by others or reported by the individual.
Recurrent gaps in the recall of everyday events, important personal information, and/or traumatic events that are inconsistent with ordinary forgetting.
The symptoms cause clinically significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.
The disturbance is not a normal part of a broadly accepted cultural or religious practice. Note: In children, the symptoms are not better explained by imaginary playmates or other fantasy play.
The symptoms are not attributable to the physiological effects of a substance (e.g., blackouts or chaotic behavior during alcohol intoxication) or another medical condition (e.g., complex partial seizures).”
One must meet the criteria listed above to be diagnosed by a mental health professional with dissociative identity disorder.
Harboring regret in either disorder makes things worse because it causes the release of cortisol that causes illness and further damage to your brain. Regret also can cause the survivor who has dissociative identity disorder to experience more switching between alters.
Moving Past Regret
Regret is okay if it is beneficial and doesn’t cause you to have persistent ruminations of the past and unproductive spirals in your thoughts. There are ways to shift your mind away from regret.
Let it go. If you cannot change what happened to you, it is time to let it go. Ruminating on how things might have gone had you done this or that, is fruitless. You were a child; you had no power and could not stop adults from doing what they did. Letting go may take time because you need to grieve over what happened, but you need to know that in the end, the healthiest and most loving thing you can do for yourself is to let it go.
Capture how what happened to you changed you and use it for your good. What happened to you so long ago changed you in many ways. One such change is your uncanny ability to love intensely. There are hundreds of other ways your maltreatment as a child has aided you in forming habits and beliefs that are unique and make you special. Not that the abuse was good, no, no, that’s not what this means. What it does mean is that you are uniquely gifted because of what happened, so why not harness these gifts to help yourself?
Stop blaming yourself for what happened. As we’ve already discussed, you were helpless to stop what happened, even if you were a teenager. You are and never will be to blame for what happened to you. Never, ever. Regretting your actions or reactions isn’t warranted because of your helplessness.
Reframe the situation. There are two ways you can reframe what happened to you. With the help of a therapist, you can pretend and go back to rescue yourself. This is a powerful method and eases many of the regrets you may feel. The other method is to look at your life as a journey from illness to health. You began your walk down the road less taken the first day you walked into your therapist’s office and, for others, when you learned your diagnosis. From that moment on, you have had many challenges and have met them all with the strength and resilience of a survivor. Try reframing how you see yourself. If you see yourself as a victim, reframe those thoughts to thinking of yourself as brave and courageous.
Ending Our Time Together
Regret is a normal human emotion that helps us to avoid making the same mistake twice. It reminds us that we are imperfect and helps us to make amends whenever possible.
However, regret following being raised in a dysfunctional home is unwarranted and damaging. When you reflect too much on the past, you solve nothing and harm yourself further.
Dissociative identity disorder is almost always coexistent with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and both are caused by the same thing, severe childhood trauma. Spending time regretting what happened won’t change the details one iota. It is fruitless to think that, as a child, you could have changed anything.
You can’t have that one.
There are many methods to avoid or at least lessen regret, including those listed in this piece and many others you may think of with your therapist.
Just hang in there and keep up the good fight. You are worth it.
“Child abuse casts a shadow the length of a lifetime.”
– Herbert Ward
“You should never view your challenges as a disadvantage. Instead, you need to understand that your experience facing and overcoming adversity is actually one of your biggest advantages.” – Michelle Obama