So, you got dumped by that skinny techno-geek in college, and now he’s a rich, buff software entrepreneur. Or, you made your parents happy by studying medicine, ignoring the fact that you hate hospitals.
There’s nothing wrong with having regrets—if you’ve never made a mistake, you probably haven’t done much living. And, regrets can actually be very helpful. They can show us how much we’ve grown (“Why did I let my ex push me around so much?”), as well as help us see where we want to go (“I wish I hadn't passed up that job opportunity in Singapore!”) “Regret is a very useful emotion. It kicks us and gets us moving,” says psychologist Neal Roese, PhD, author of If Only: How To Turn Regret Into Opportunity. Of course, regrets can also hold us back—if we get caught in the endless spin cycle of “should haves” and “could haves.” Here are some of life’s most common “if onlys”—and the strategies for moving on!
“I spent money on stupid things. Now I’m drowning in debt!”
Shoes, concert tickets, dinners at fancy restaurants—you had it all. Now, all you have are big fat bills, with crazy-high numbers that just keep rising! As you try to drag those digits down, you’re missing out on some seriously awesome stuff—an out-of-the-country vacation with your girlfriends, an apartment overlooking the city. Worst of all, you can’t even remember what you bought—the meals are long forgotten, the clothes are faded and out of style.
No doubt about it—digging yourself out of debt is a massive bore. But, instead of kicking yourself for those frilly mistakes cluttering your closet, take pride in the fact that you’ve learned one of life’s hardest lessons: Don’t spend what you don’t have. “Use it as a source of strength. Let the lesson move you forward,” says Judith Sills, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of The Comfort Trap. Sills says looking at past behavior that you’ve outgrown is painful, but very useful. “It helps you recognize how far you’ve come,” she says. So, instead of mooning over all the purses and pedicures you can’t have, use your experience to develop the hardcore financial skills that will bring you a rich future.
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“I chose my course in college to please my parents. Now I hate my job!”
Your parents told you to abandon your silly dreams of being a national news reporter, and become an accountant instead. Now you’re several years into a career you hate, and each morning, after pressing snooze on your phone’s alarm, you drag yourself out of bed thinking “Why why why?”
M.J. Ryan, author of Trusting Yourself: How To Stop Feeling Overwhelmed And Live More Happily With Less Effort, says the first thing to do is forgive yourself—it’s not fair to constantly kick yourself for a decision you made when you were a teenager. And, even if your parents made a bad call this time, chances are that listening to them has served you pretty well overall. “We beat ourselves up, because we imagine that we should have known what we know now. But, that’s not possible for any person. The truth is, you couldn’t have done it differently, because if you could have you would have,” says Ryan. Instead of ruminating over the past, take a hard look at where you are now. How badly do you want your dream career? Are you willing to go back to school? Start at the bottom? Are there small steps you could take to a more fulfilling career, like signing up for a night class?
If you decide it really is too late to become a singer or a professional dancer, don’t despair. Instead, take stock. Look at the experience, wisdom, and contacts you now have. Is there another field that you could go into, one that might even build from the skills you acquired from your dreary day job? Does your current job offer any paths to something you’d enjoy more? Once you start looking forward, rather than backward, you can start mapping a bright new future.
“I never should have broken up with my ex. Now, he’s getting married!”
At the time, it seemed like you had many good reasons for leaving your man. You needed time. You needed space. You weren’t sure he was “The One.” Now you’ve had way too much time and space to wonder how you could let such a great guy get away.
The solution? First, feel the burn. When you suffer a gut-wrenching regret like this, mourning that loss is key. Face the fact that you’ve made a big, honking mistake. Roese suggests venting your sadness and frustration in writing. “Writing down your thoughts and worries puts them into the larger context of your life, and that seems to be the key ingredient that helps people get better,” says Roese. Whether you’re writing in a private journal or a public blog, jotting your thoughts down will help you clarify what’s troubling you and provide useful information about what you’re now looking for in a relationship. Ask yourself: What have you learned from the experience? What are the qualities your ex has that you now appreciate (and didn’t before)? This will help you see those subtle character traits in the next Romeo to come your way.You’ll also figure out what’s really bugging you about this situation. After all, you must have ended things with your ex for a reason—are you sure you really want to marry him or are you just ready to settle down?
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“I passed up a great job opportunity!”
At the time, you thought there would be plenty of chances to get a well-paying job that offers hands-on experience and the chance to travel. Then you discovered—not. Now you’re haunted by the job you didn’t take, or the promotion you didn’t ask for.
First, figure out if you’ve truly missed your shot. Is it possible a simple email to an HR manager or hiring partner could get you considered for future opportunities? If the answer is no, give yourself some tough-love. Whenever you start stewing over a fabulous career path you’ve missed, stop. Take a deep breath, and say to yourself, “It’s over.” Repeat as many times as necessary. Roese says that this will help you heal more quickly. “When something is closed or fixed or done, that’s when people tend to get over it,” he says.
Then, mine the regret for information—after all, if you can’t stop thinking about something, it probably has some pretty useful data. “Ask yourself what about the alternative is more appealing to you?” asks Ryan. “What is it that you’re missing? Longing for?” For example, if you’re bumming that you didn’t go after a promotion at work, what has changed that makes you want it now? Have your skills and confidence grown since then? If you wake up every morning wishing you’d taken that position at the small but promising ad agency in Makati, ask yourself what about that alternative is appealing to you. Are you looking for the excitement of a young company, or the hustle-and-bustle of the metropolis?
Once you’ve clarified what you’re looking for, you’ll be poised to jump when the next big (and, possibly, better) opportunity comes along—even if it happens at a bad time, when you don’t feel like making a move, etcetera, etcetera. You’ll also be able to start actively seeking what you want. “Regret comes up over missed opportunity,” says Sills. “It gets overcome by an awareness that I might have missed that opportunity but not all opportunities.”
“I should have moved abroad, rather than staying here!”
If only you had bought that one-way ticket to the dazzling city oceans away. Instead of working at your humdrum job, looking at the same old faces, you’d have a glamorous career and be power-lunching with people of different nationalities in glitzy cities. Instead of going to the usual haunts in jeans and t-shirts, you’d be club hopping with ultra-hip friends in clothes that would make Carrie Bradshaw swoon.
It’s easy to daydream about the thrilling life you’d have if you’d chosen a different path. That’s why “the stuff we didn’t do” makes for such powerful regrets: They never leave the fantasyland stage. “Since the details are unclear, you fill in the blanks with things you saw on a TV show,” says Roese. “It’s not limited by anything except your imagination.”
So, give yourself a reality check. Roese suggests turning the fairy tale into a nightmare. Imagine yourself in a cramped one-room apartment, eating ramen noodles because your bank statement reads zero, missing the big holiday bash back home because you can’t afford a plane ticket. Of course, the truth would be somewhere in between, but projecting yourself into both scenarios will help you figure out whether you really want to move to your dream city, or just watch the sitcom.
If you decide you’re ready for the bright lights—well, what are you waiting for? Just because you regret old decisions doesn’t mean you can’t make new ones. As Ryan says, “We can only live our lives one choice at a time, and we can always make another choice now.”