22 October 2016Last updated

Features | People

Are you struggling with regrets?

All too often, a little voice inside our heads keeps steering us towards the what-if and could-have-been moments of our lives. It can be crippling, but it needn’t be, says Colin Drury

By Colin Drury
8 Jul 2016 | 12:00 am
  • Source:iStock

At its worst, says Thomas, it felt like he was being eaten alive inside.

Six years ago, while working as a computer programmer in Dubai he was head-hunted and offered a job in Frankfurt, Germany.

He had no reason to leave the UAE. He loved his job and life here. His colleagues were all close friends and he had a beautiful apartment overlooking the sea. Aged 28, he had just met the woman who would be his future wife.

‘It was the life I’d always dreamed of,’ he says. ‘Frankfurt just couldn’t compete, except on one front: the money being offered was unreal. For me, who had a relatively poor background in Romania, it was like a winning a lottery.’

He took the job. Then, he never stopped wishing he hadn’t.

Frankfurt was hard, grey and cold. The new role meant working alone for most of the week. He struggled to make friends. He missed Alice, his partner, still in Dubai, more than he could have imagined. And, while the money was indeed better, he quickly realised there was less scope for personal development at the new company.

The regret, he says, was paralysing.

‘Every day, every hour, I would be thinking how I made the wrong decision,’ he says. ‘It was the last thing on my mind at night, and it was there in my head when I woke up. I’m generally a positive person, but it killed me. I just kept thinking how I’d thrown away this wonderful life in Dubai for a handful of silver. And, because of the contract, there was really no way I could go back on things. I had to be there a minimum of two years, and, short of bankrupting myself and destroying my reputation, there wasn’t much I could do to reverse that.’

His regret seethed him for almost a year of those two.

‘I knew I should just make the most of it – make friends, work hard, see the country,’ he recalls. ‘But there was always this niggle: “What if I’d stayed in Dubai? What could I have achieved by now? What did I throw away?’’’

Regrets. We’ve all had a few. Twenty-first century pop psychology tells us that we should never grieve for might-have-beens. Thoughts of could-haves, should-haves and would-haves are both a waste of energy, and a barrier to future happiness.

But we are human. A certain amount of looking back is inevitable. Healthy, even. Those who do not reflect upon the past are, surely, ill-equipped for the future. If we do not recognise a mistake or missed opportunity – be that professionally, romantically or just really wishing we’d gone to that party the other night – we have no way of learning from them.

To paraphrase the American author Carina Chocano, there may be no point crying over spilt milk, but one may wish to spend some time considering how not to spill it again.

Except, that is, when we find ourselves, like Thomas, struggling to move on because of such a metaphorical mishap.

When regret turns into torment, when wishing for a different history stops us from dealing adequately with the present, it becomes not a niggle but an obstacle to maintaining good mental health and physical well-being. In fact, several studies have shown that fruitless rumination can lead to rising blood pressure, disrupted immune systems, insomnia and long-term anxiety and depression.

The emotional distress of regret triggers biological dysregulation of the hormone and immune systems that makes people more vulnerable to develop clinical health problems, whether a cold or other potentially longer-term health problems,’ writes Professor Carsten Wrosch of Canada’s Concordia University in a 2011 research paper published in the respected Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

All of which is bad news for those who experience emotions of what-if and if-only.

The fast-paced, high-pressure lives typical of expat existence are thought to be ideal breeding ground for regrets because they encourage the need to act fast, which can lead to repenting at leisure. Add to that the fact that many people are away from natural support networks such as family and you have a situation in which personal sorrow can fester.

‘Regret is absolutely one of the biggest issues we have to deal with,’ says Carmen Benton, founder of LifeWorks Personal Development Training Centre in Dubai. ‘People here are natural go-getters and forward-thinkers but occasionally, when they perceive opportunities have been missed, that can impact significantly. And no one should underestimate the damage that dwelling on regret can do. It stops you engaging with life. It holds you back. If you cannot overcome it, it becomes a mental health crisis.’

So, how does one go about getting over regret?

Theories differ depending on which experts are asked, but most agree there are central positive actions which should help sufferers. Most obviously is not to do anything you will regret in the first place. Easily said, almost impossible to achieve. But, says Carmen, there are certain ways of reducing future what-ifs.

It comes down to two vaguely opposing instructions. First, have a pause button to reduce acting on immediate impulses (should you really tell your boss what you think of him?). Simultaneously, don’t let fear stop you from acting altogether (if you don’t do that bungee jump now, maybe one day you’ll wish you had).

‘If you balance these two ideals you won’t be far off living a life without regret,’ says Carmen. ‘And always remember to appreciate what you have.

‘The example I use is the mother who has two screaming babies and is so tired she doesn’t understand what a gift she has and regrets only the hard work. Then the kids get to 16 and she regrets that her babies got so old so fast. Don’t be that woman. Enjoy the moment because if you don’t, one day, you will wish you had.’

What, though, if the action, or lack of it that we regret is already done? There are ways of stopping this from tormenting you.

For starters, don’t dismiss or bury it without dealing with it. That way, negative emotions stay with you, silent but ready to bubble horribly to the surface any time something incidental sparks them off.

‘Regretting something is like grieving,’ says Cindy van de Kreke-Freens, personal development coach with Authenticity Coaching and Consultancy in Dubai’s Al Barsha. ‘You have to deal with the pain before you move on.

‘Write down what’s nagging you if that helps. Journal it. Embrace it. Connect with the pain. Get the tissues out and spend a day crying if you have to. Because it’s only then – only when it’s all up and out – that you can begin to move on.’

As part of this process, at some point, we should start to dispute the regret. That is to say, we should remember that could-have-beens almost certainly wouldn’t have resulted in the perfect ending we are imagining. All paths have their ups and downs. None are smooth, none end in irretrievable disaster.

‘Take some time for a reality check,’ says Liisa Kyle, author of the self-help book Get Over It: Overcome Regret, Disappointment and Past Mistakes. ‘For example, “I blew my chance to sell my screenplay and now I never will”, might be more realistically stated as, “I missed a great chance, but that wasn’t the only chance I will ever have, and if I take some specific actions now, I could create new, possibly better, opportunities to sell my script, which I can now improve”.’

Put another way, we must rationalise and attempt to turn regret into gratitude. So, perhaps you wish you had not stayed in the same job for so long but, then, you did learn a lot while there. Or maybe you believe you should not have gotten married so young but, just think, you wouldn’t have had those beautiful kids. In short, says Cindy, ‘remember every action has its own wonderful outcomes. So you were in a car crash but, look, you’re still alive. We just need to tune ourselves to appreciate what we have’.

Along similar lines, we should grow from our reflections.

Regret feels pretty negative but, as long as we can become stronger and better equipped for the future because of the experience, then it is absolutely a positive.

‘Regret has a purpose,’ summarises the human behaviourist writer Eric Barker. ‘It’s like the oil light on the dashboard of your life, telling you something needs to be fixed. And in moderation, this is a good thing. It opens the door to modifying future behaviours.’

It’s a psychoanalytical take on that classic grandma saying: There are no mistakes in life, only lessons learned.

Lastly, when overcoming regret, we must move on.

Rumination has its place as well as purpose. But a time comes when we must let go, otherwise it will infect our future too.

‘Discard it, rip it up, burn it, forget it,’ says Liisa. ‘If you find yourself thinking about it, stop. Shift your attention elsewhere.

‘If you have a little voice in your head that delights in scolding you, you may even have to shout “Stop it!” out loud. More importantly: forgive yourself.’

It was this last piece of advice which unwittingly was key to Thomas moving on.

After 12 painful months of scolding himself, and with 12 more to go before he could return to Dubai, he had a realisation.

‘My partner missed a flight over to Germany and it meant we missed a weekend together,’ he remembers. ‘And she was so upset and worried I’d be mad at her, and I’m not like that. It was a mistake. They happen.

‘That’s when I thought, “Well, so was moving to Frankfurt. It was a mistake, they happen, so get on with it”.’

So, he did. He stopped dwelling on the move and made a vow to live life there with vigour.

He still moved back to Dubai when his contract allowed and married Alice, but the second year of his time in Frankfurt was far more rewarding than his first. He made friends who he still visits, saved up a huge chunk of money, learned German and took up football for the first time.

In short, he approached life with a glass-half-full attitude.

‘Do I still regret moving there?’ he muses. ‘I do – and I’m suspicious of people who say they don’t have regrets. I think they’re trying to fool themselves. I believe in facts and the fact is I would have been better, from a personal and professional point of view, staying in the UAE.

‘But now I can reconcile that with the fact that when I made the move, it was for the right reasons, and, while I was there, I achieved things I would never have done if I’d stayed here.’

The conclusion is simple: we all have regrets. But the only thing that’s truly regretful is if we do not overcome them and move on.

By Colin Drury

By Colin Drury