Statistically, at age 39, I’m only halfway through the predicted human life expectancy. But I made a “Bucket List” a few years ago (link to my other blog, a blog of random commentary and musings on life in general) and I’m about to add a sequel.
Because I want to live my life with minimal regrets. I want to make sure I accomplish everything I’d like to do. I don’t want to find myself knocking on The Other Side’s door, peering through the veil that separates the physical realm from the spiritual, contemplating and running through a mental checklist, and thinking…
“Calculus? Yeah, I never did get around to that.”
“Physics? I couldn’t ever quite grasp that.”
“MIDI? That’s still a mystery to me.”
“Clutching to the chain-link fence on the beach near that airport as the jets wound up their engines and started creating serious wind? Nope, never did get to do that.”
“Egyptian pyramids? The Great Wall of China? Never did go see those.”
“That friend I lost touch with? I never did reconnect with her. I miss her.”
Of all the emotions, regret seems to be the saddest. Because you can’t go back in time and fix it. It’s done.
Regret is a painful emotion for anyone, but I imagine that it hits us, the people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum, particularly hard.
It’s not a weakness or a character flaw, of course. It seems to be the way we’re wired. And it seems to be that the more of a systemizer we are, the harder it hits. Because we systemizers review *everything*, sometimes many times, long after the event, conversation, etc, has passed. We proofread and edit our words and actions, piecing together the chain of events, drawing connections between them, substituting one word or phrase for a more accurate or diplomatic one. And frequently, these replays, instant or delayed, brew powerful pangs of regret.
Since Asperger’s/autistic people are often stronger systemizers than the rest of the population, regret becomes a central theme in the lives of many of us.
People on the spectrum also tend to have a very soft, spongy, sensitive core. So spongy that we might pick up on vibes from others that aren’t actually there. So sensitive that, real or not, these vibes can affect us profoundly–much more profoundly than “average”. (Whatever “average” may be; since I can’t even speak for everyone on the spectrum, I would be certainly out of place trying to surmise how the brains of the population at large work. Although I have been known to be guilty of doing exactly this, and not rarely.)
Combine the powerful processor of the Asperger’s/autism operating system (AOS) (which is responsible for our systemizing abilities) with our soft, sensitive core (which spawns our complex web of intense emotions), and presto!–the ground is fertile for a garden of regret.
Because life doesn’t have a “rewind”, “undo”, or “edit” buttons. What’s said is said and what’s done is done. Words, once said, can’t be unsaid; once heard or received, they can’t be unheard or unreceived. They hang there, sometimes giving off foul odors or bitter tastes. Years spent can’t be unspent. Time wasted can’t be unwasted. There’s is always time to make changes, as long as there is time.
You probably noticed that the beginning that I said “minimal regrets”, as opposed to “without regret”. This is because regret is more than likely unavoidable; there will almost always be some. If you have a list of options and you make a choice to do one thing, you’ve essentially decided against the other items on the list. And we can only do one thing at a time. Since the future is unknown but hindsight is 20/20 and all that, we might not realize if/when something we chose not to do might have been a better choice, and we should’ve done “this” instead of “that”.
Now, enter the common Asperger’s/autistic tendency to criticize ourselves harshly. We begin to beat ourselves up. Sometimes, in our younger years, we had plenty of “help” with this, via parents, teachers, and other role models/authority figures (by “role models”, I don’t necessarily mean that they were good ones). Maybe they recorded the original “old tapes” that some (many?) of us still play in our heads as adults.
No wonder depression is a common “comorbidity”; we’re set up for it from the git-go, sometimes even before we have a prayer of dodging it or nipping it in the bud before it starts.
There is a solution to all this. It’s low-tech, free, and sometimes easier said than done. It’s not perfect, but it’s realistic. We can let go of some of our desire for perfection. We can be gentler with ourselves for not being perfect.
There’ll always be one more “I love you” or “I care about you” that we could’ve said. There’ll always be one more time we could’ve given in, one more thought we could’ve shared.
We can’t be there for everyone all the time. We might not always have the spoons to pick up the phone every time it rings or answer every email, text, or message right away.
There’ll always be one more adventure we could’ve gone on, one more class or trip we could’ve taken, one more subject we could’ve researched.
I think it’s important to recognize this, remember that we’re only human, accept these facts (as hard as it may be to do so), and move on, doing the best we can.
We can give every day 100% of what we have that day. And we can keep in mind that our capacity today may be what it was yesterday, or what it might be tomorrow.
What we can’t do is change our wiring; we’ll always edit and proofread. We’ll always be sensitive. We’ll always be spongy. Those of us who systemize will probably always do so. It’s in our nature, and it’s not wrong. We can simply accept and make peace with these attributes, and use them as constructively as we can.
We also can’t change other people. What they think and say about us is what it is. I don’t mean to take on a defeatist attitude; I’m just realizing that I need to let go. I used to hold people in my psychological clutches – not in a possessive way, but in a way in which I worried (worry) too much about what they think of me. Sometimes I forget that I can’t control what they think; they’re independent people over whom my influence only goes so far, and they’re going to do what they’re going to do. We do teach people how to treat us more than we realize, but that influence isn’t infinite; at some point, they’re going to make up their own minds, and we’re not going to please everybody. My chronic mistake is that I kept trying.
However, there’s plenty we can change. We can expand our knowledge base. We can reflect upon ourselves. We can learn from difficult times, conversations, relationships, and people. We might struggle through hardship, but we can use our systemizing capability to pick it apart, see what went wrong, and then (shushing the Self Critic inside) we can gain some nuggets of insight and coax and coach ourselves to do “this” instead of “that” next time.
There’s also plenty of influence we do have. We can modulate the impression that people form about us. We can be as diplomatic as possible without compromising ourselves or becoming doormats for others to walk on. We can (and often do) make the effort to clarify ourselves so that (usually non-autistic) people don’t take what we say the wrong way.
We can make the most of each day. Sometimes, given our cognitive, emotional, and physical reserves, resilience, and energy, that might not be much. That’s OK. We can use what we have, even if that isn’t much when measured up against the “standards” of the world in general. Nobody can (reasonably) ask us to do more than we’re capable of. Some might try (here’s looking at you, Certain Former Teachers), but they don’t realize how silly and irrational they’re being.
I’m not sure it’s even possible to go very long without any regrets. It’s probably unrealistic to expect to live a life without regret. But I think it’s reasonable to shoot for a goal of keeping the regret to a minimum.
I can totally go for that. 🙂
That may not be a glimmering, shiny answer to the issue, but it’s the best I’ve got. ❤
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