At one time or another, we’ve all made a blunder so cringe-worthy that even thinking about it makes you sick to your stomach and crimson with embarrassment. Whether it’s jumping the gun in a relationship, mismanaging your money or messing up at work, some clangers can stick around to haunt you months, or even years. But while having regrets is an unfortunate but normal part of being human (even Frank Sinatra had a few, remember?), you don’t have to allow those regrets to hold you back.
“It’s important to remember that regrets arise naturally out of life’s events - unfulfilled expectations, shattered hopes and lost dreams, failures and tragedies, mistakes and misjudgements - and are woven into the fabric of the human experience,” explains Hamilton Beazley, PhD, author of No Regrets. “Regrets are to be expected as part of being alive; they are inevitable. But regrets do not have to be burdensome and they do not have to be harboured. They can be let go,” he adds.
The key, he says, is in making the distinction between learning from a mistake and simply wallowing in self-pity over your stuff-ups. “Mulling over a regret is only productive if the purpose is to mine that regret for lessons learned that can guide our behaviour in the future,” says Dr Beazley. “But if the purpose is to dwell on the regret or live in it, wishing the outcome were different and feeling pain in the present because it isn’t, then the exercise is futile and the time spent a waste.” He adds, “We cannot alter the past, only our response to it.”
Clare Bailey, 35, learned this lesson the hard way after she broke up with her long-term partner, last year. “Matt* dumped me six months after we moved to Dubai together. The sunny weather brought out an outdoorsy side to him that I’d never seen during the five years we dated in the UK. Suddenly, he loved hitting the beach, surfing and camping in the desert, but I was more focused on my job and was working long hours. When I did get time off, I wanted to relax at nice spas, bars and restaurants, not trek around the wilderness, and eventually those differences drove us apart.
“Afterwards, I spent months regretting all those times Matt had offered to teach me to surf and all those camping trips I’d refused to go on. Eventually, I realised, I was wishing I had a different personality, which I knew was a complete waste of time. Maybe I wasn’t the girl for Matt, but it dawned on me that he probably wasn’t the guy for me, either.
“So instead of looking at my flaws, I focused on the aspects of Matt’s personality which weren’t compatible with mine. I wrote a list of attributes I wanted in my next partner: someone who is equally as ambitious as me; someone who prefers city breaks in luxe hotels over slumming it under the stars...Soon a picture started to emerge of the kind of guy I should be going for – and he was the polar opposite of Matt!
“Months on, I met a new guy who matched the qualities on my list – and we’re getting married next year! I can now look back fondly at my relationship with Matt, without berating myself for not being the type of girl he wanted.”Recognising you are not solely to blame when something doesn’t go according to plan, as Clare has done, is key if you want your self-esteem to recover after a setback, says Dr Melanie Schlatter, a Dubai-based health psychologist.
“‘If only I had...’ thoughts can lead to chronic stress that affects everything from your self-esteem and ability to cope with future stress, to your hormonal and immune systems -primarily because there is probably nothing that you can do to change the situation,” says Dr Schlatter. “Allowing yourself to fixate on what could have been is particularly destructive because it suggests there was only ever one correct way to do things. Perfectionists in particular struggle with this, as their expectations are generally so high. To better manage your regret,” she says, “It is helpful if the cause of your regret can be partially attributed to external factors.”
In Clare’s case, for example, her job and change in lifestyle could be to blame, in part, for the breakdown of her relationship.
As the saying goes, hindsight is a wonderful thing. But instead of looking back lamenting the things we wish we’d known, we should acknowledge and appreciate the lessons we’ve learned along the way, says Cynthia Grguric, a counselling psychologist at LifeWorks Dubai.
“Adjust your attitude by looking at life as a journey of data collection and discovery,” says Grguric. “Most of us make the best informed decision we can at the time. Further along the journey, we might gain further knowledge that might cause us to choose differently later. This just proves we have done well in gathering further knowledge and understanding,” she adds.
And no matter how huge the blunder, there is always something positive to be taken from it. “Our past experiences, positive or negative, all teach us something to add to our ‘life library’,” says Grguric. “It is just as important to know what we don’t want as it is to establish what we do want. Ultimately, it’s about learning and growing.”
We asked the experts for the biggest causes of regret (love, career, friendship and money were the biggies) and how to move past when you’ve made a mistake in each of these life areas. Read on to find out what they had to say...
You’ve Lost ‘The One’
You confessed undying love, only to hear the devastating four words: ‘Let’s just be friends’. It’s heartbreaking, embarrassing and mortifying but there are positives to be taken away. Getting past unrequited love is all about appreciating the things you learned from that person, says Dr Beazley. “Loving is transformative. If you truly loved the person, you learned from that person and probably grew from your interactions with that person,” he says. “With a lost love, we can be grateful for the lessons we learned and the gifts we received.”
The most important thing is that you don’t fabricate details of what actually happened – this is as futile as making up stories about what might happen in the future, says Hal Milton, author of Wising Up: Life Without Regrets.
Ask yourself this: how many times after a break-up have you imagined an alternative reason for the split? He tells you he just doesn’t think you’ve got enough chemistry and you convince yourself that it’s really your clinginess/moodiness/those extra five kilos you’ve been meaning to lose that have sent him packing. If you’re ever going to get over your break-up, you need to accept the facts at face value, urges Milton.
“The main cause of regrets are the stories we tell ourselves about what happened rather than just recognising that it happened, and taking the opportunity to learn from the experience,” he says. “It all boils down to understanding ‘the way it is’ rather than how we want it to be. Tell yourself, ‘This is the way it ended’, then get busy doing the next thing. Stop berating yourself and focus on what you’ve learned.”
Similarly, resist the urge to fantasise about the future you could have had together. “Naturally, we imagine that our future with the other person would have been wonderful,” says Dr Beazley. “But we cannot predict the future. Perhaps this person we lost would not have grown with us and the relationship would have soured down the road, when separation would have been more complicated and difficult. It might have been very unhappy, even destructive. Many regrets are built on the false belief that we can see the future and know how it would have turned out if only....” he adds.
You’ve Scored A Career Own Goal
You messed up on a big project and got demoted – or worse, fired. But in order to bounce back from a career set-back, you need to start by being honest with yourself. “Recognise your own mistakes in the situation so that you don’t repeat them. Ask yourself: what are the significant lessons here about your own character, abilities, and behaviours? What do you need to change?” says Dr Beazley.Most importantly, stay focused on the positive. “I have counselled many people through job termination and most often find that if people are honest with themselves, things were probably not working out in the job for them either,” says Grguric. “Embrace the opportunity to take control of what you want from your work life - assess what are the important attributes you want or don’t want in a job and explore hidden dreams you may have put off.”
Once you get past the bruise to your ego, you may look back and be thankful you lost your job because of the new opportunities it opened up. “In writing No Regrets, I spoke with many people who were grateful for being fired because it led them to a new career path that was more satisfying,” adds Dr Beazley. “It’s helpful to acknowledge that what looks like a temporary setback may be a blessing in the long run.”
You’ve Let A Friendship Fade
Time, distance, career and family have all got in the way of what once used to be a friendship to rival Carrie and Miranda. What’s key here is to stop wasting time regretting the hours you haven’t spent with your friend, and concentrate your efforts on building bridges instead.
“One of the biggest causes of regret is not spending enough time with loved ones. The feeling that you’ve missed out on vital parts of your friend’s life can be almost insurmountable for some,” says Dr Schlatter. And that feeling is often exacerbated for expats who have chosen to live thousands of miles away from family and friends.
Julie Drive, 37*, moved to Dubai with her husband two years ago and struggled to move past the life she left behind in Australia. “I was consumed with guilt over missing major milestones back home, like friends’ weddings and births,” says Julie. “And I was angry and bitter that my friends weren’t there to support me when I gave birth to my daughter last year.”
To move forward, you need to embrace your new life in the UAE and stop grieving your old life. “Let go of the past and live in the present,” Dr Beazley urges. “You can’t live in the past without paying a high price in terms of unhappiness, pain, anger, shame, and guilt.”
It’s natural that your old friends will move on with their lives, just as you have moved on with yours. Instead of mourning the old friendships you’re missing out on, focus on enjoying the new friendships you’re making in Dubai. “Letting go of regrets allows us to focus on the present and to use our energy for productive purposes. The anger or resentment of a regret ties us to the past; letting go frees us to live in the present and, if necessary, to start anew,” says Dr Beazley.
This doesn’t mean you have to cast your old friends aside, it’s just about being realistic about how much you can be a part of their lives. “The great thing is you realise there is an imbalance in your life,” says Grguric. “You are the boss of your schedule and prioritising your time.” So set aside time for Skype calls, plan visits home and invite your old friends to visit you in your new home. “Be realistic but assertive in how you manage your days. Carve out the time you want to give to work, family, and friends etc, and stick to it,” she adds.
It’s also worth acknowledging that some friendships naturally fade with time. If you’re the only one making the effort, perhaps it’s time you walk away – and let yourself off the hook. “Some friendships last a lifetime; others seem to serve a specific purpose,” says Dr Beazley. “Sometimes we outgrow our friends and need to move on. That's sad, but it’s important to be open to the world's experiences rather than trying to hold onto something that needs to be let go.”
You’ve Blown Money On Something Stupid
Whether it’s a handbag you can’t afford or an out-of-your-budget car, buyer’s remorse is enough to set you in a panic. How can you move on from the awful feeling that you’ve blown too much money on something frivolous? Firstly, lighten up on yourself, says Milton, and retain your sense of humour. “Laugh at yourself and then ask yourself what the motivation might have been. This is another opportunity to learn about yourself and what it was that made you do it. That way, hopefully you won’t make the same mistake in the future because you know the consequences. Also, move forward by making up for the money you spent - make a conscious effort to spend less this month in order to recoup the money. This Ramadan,try alleviating your guilt by doing something for charity. (visit Dubaicares.ae to find out about volunteering opportunities). “Deciding to do something else to make up for the money wasted will serve as a reminder to be financially responsible and as a sacrifice for the error you made,” says Dr Beazley. Lastly, stop punishing yourself for your splurge. “Enjoy what you bought. You own it and may as well find pleasure in it,” says Dr Beazley. “Nothing is to be gained by beating yourself up over and over. A big part of letting go of regret is forgiveness and sometimes we have to forgive ourselves.”
You’ve Made A Bad Decision
Some spur-of-the-moment decisions can cause years of regret. The secret to moving on is learning to ease up on yourself, says Dr Schlatter. “Instead of saying ‘I should have…’, look at how a certain experience or person might have taught you something,” she says.
It’s also helpful to look at how others have coped in a similar situation, suggests Dr Schlatter. Kim Miles, 36, was finally able to let go of the regret over her teenage marriage when she met someone else in the same boat. “John* and I got married at the age of 19. I was divorced by the time I was 23, and spent the rest of my 20s wallowing in what a mistake I’d made. It wasn’t until I met my current boss Jan, that I was finally able to see the positive.
“Jan had also divorced young. But instead of being ashamed of her past, she wore it like a badge of honour. She was proud of the relationship lessons she had learned early on, and considered herself older and wiser in matters of love. She made me see how much the experience – however painful – had taught me, and I was finally able to move on.”
Learning from mistakes is the only way to move forward, says Dr Beazley. “Learn the lesson in the mistake and apply it to your life so that the mistake has some value to you. Understand that you are an imperfect human being. We grow through our mistakes and they’re part of the human experience. Lastly, accept that the past is gone and recognise that regrets could be keeping you from doing something you want to do.
Regrets? I've had a few...
Four VIVA readers reveal the biggest regret of their lives and how they got over it.
“When I was 16, I impulsively had my first boyfriend’s initials tattooed on my stomach. At the time it felt like such a romantic gesture. But after I found out that he had cheated on me, we broke up, and I was left with this great, big ‘GP’ inked on my torso. At first, I thought about getting it removed, but honestly, I kind of liked having a constant reminder of how young and naive I once was. It was like my own secret reminder to myself to watch out for cheaters in the future. I made the decision to keep it, and told everybody that the GP stood for Girl Power!” Shelly, 34
“I’d been best friends with Tim* for years, and one summer when I was going through a bad dating drought, I started to wonder if we could be more than that. One Friday, after a long day’s brunching, I called him up and slurred down the phone, ‘I love you.’ He was mortified and quickly made his excuses and hung up. Every time I thought about it, I felt sick, terrified I’d wrecked a great friendship. Eventually, I plucked up the courage to explain that I’d only said what I had because I was feeling lonely and vulnerable. That was seven years ago, and we’re still great friends to this day.” Jenny, 37
“When I first moved to Dubai, I was working in a really tough law firm. The long hours and never-ending stack of legal papers in my in-tray, was so overwhelming that I was stressed to breaking point. Instead of speaking up, I struggled in silence, started making mistakes and was eventually fired. I was devastated, but after I’d dusted myself off, I realised that I wasn’t enjoying the job at all. I decided to make a career change and retrained in marketing and PR. I recently started my own PR consultancy and I work my own hours. Getting fired was the best thing that could have happened to me.” Kerrie, 38
“I’d got myself in huge credit card debt to fund my shoe addiction, to the point where the minimum payments were so high, I could barely make rent. I hated the mess I was in so cheered myself up by spending more. When I started getting hounded by the bank over late payments, I knew something had to give. I made a plan to get out of debt: volunteering for overtime to earn extra cash and making a pact to avoid malls. Years on, I’m debt free and have learned a valuable lesson about borrowing. I’m so careful with money these days, that my friends often jokingly call me tightwad!” Julie, 32