Psychologists have written extensively about defense mechanisms people use to eradicate things that are unpleasant or detrimental from their perceived reality. A disastrous investment is a perfect example of something anyone would like to reverse or undo. Unfortunately, the clock cannot be turned back, and it is better to manage the process psychologically than to try to make up the losses through risky investments. (For related reading, see: The Importance of Trading Psychology and Discipline.)
Dysfunctional Coping Strategies
When faced with losses, many people employ dysfunctional coping strategies. These include:
- Suppression: Trying to suppress the negative feelings associated with a loss can be difficult and come back to haunt you. Financial problems and loss-induced distress can easily turn into marital or career-related problems or stress. You could end up taking out your frustrations on your family, colleagues or friends.
- Projection: It is not uncommon for those facing a big loss to try to blame it on someone or something else rather than taking responsibility for their own poor decisions or excessive risk-taking.
- Denial and self-delusion: These dysfunctional coping methods lead people to cling to failed investments in the vain hope that "they will go up again." If you bought a dud, it is almost always best to get rid of it and put whatever money is left into something safer and sounder. In short, cut your losses and move on.
Sound Coping Strategies
Assuming you have no legitimate claim against the seller for your losses, or cannot afford to go this route, it is necessary to come to terms with the situation. One meaningful way of coping is simply to learn from your errors and try to recoup the losses over time by investing well and prudently in the future. This is not a quick fix or "sure thing," but it certainly makes sense to try. If you took excessive risks, trusted the wrong people or were just plain unlucky, you can be more careful and diversify your portfolio more in the future. Even if it takes years, you may well find that you do get some, or all, of it back, and it's comforting to think this might happen. (See also: Investors Should Be Risk Diverse, Not Risk Averse.)
Keep in mind that some investments simply do go wrong. There are incompetent, unethical and dishonest people in the industry, and anyone can be a victim. That is life and what doesn't kill you can make you stronger.
Rationalization is useful, but only if it is realistic. It is important to understand what you and others did and why. For instance, were you tempted by the lure of big money, or were you the victim of false promises or even fraud? Getting to the bottom of what really happened in the past is the best way to move on to a better future. But when rationalization is really self-delusion and entails blaming others for your own mistakes, or not facing reality, the process becomes a negative one. (See also: Understanding Investor Behavior.)
In the event of particularly severe losses, and even possibly with those that do not threaten one's financial survival, there are cases in which people suffer from depression or even despair. As such, they may resort to those negative coping strategies discussed above, or worse. In such instances, professional help may be required.
Finally, in terms of investing your money well in the future, it may be worth employing the help of an independent financial advisor with a good track record.
The Bottom Line
While changing the past is impossible, you can control how you react to it. Choosing sound coping strategies will help you move on faster and may even enable you to recoup financial losses.