When she was a trainee journalist at 22, Louisa sent some feature pitches to a monthly magazine she had loved reading from the age of 13.
The publication was everything she wanted to be – glossy, fun and stylish, and her dream at journalism college was to get a job there.
She was caught off-guard. While many magazines usually didn’t even reply to journalism students’ ideas, the editor of the glossy loved Louisa’s suggestions so much he asked her in to the office so they could talk them through. That’s when Louisa, now 42, had a serious attack of nerves.
“I was too timid to go in and meet him,” she confides. “Even though I could interview and write well, I was afraid that when the editor met me and saw how unworldly and inexperienced I was, he would never use my work, so I just ignored his request to see me.
“Instead, I worked as a reporter on local newspapers, but I always regretted that I never took that opportunity to work on my favourite magazine. Even now, 20 years down the line, I’ve written for other magazines, but I’ve never approached the one I could have worked for. It’s my coulda, shoulda, woulda job and I never gave myself a second chance with it. I could kick myself for letting the chance slip away like that.”
Louisa isn’t alone. According to experts, including Dubai life coach Mahyra Roy, we all have regrets of some sort or other – whether it’s chances we didn’t take, like having a gap year or going travelling after university, or relationships we didn’t invest enough in before it was too late.
“Every day we make hundreds of decisions,” says Mahyra (www.catalystconcepts.org). “And for every decision there are consequences, and chances are that there will be regret about something we did or didn’t do.
“We often talk about our regrets with terms like ‘coulda, shoulda, woulda’ or we say ‘if only’. Often, we’re furious with ourselves for missing an opportunity, but, like Louisa, we know we had our reasons for behaving as we did at the time.
“If the regret is related to something you did in the past, then you often feel a degree of pain, but if the regret is about something you haven’t done, then you will probably feel a longing,” says Mahyra.
Psychotherapist John Clayton (www.thepinnaclepractice.co.uk), who has practices in Harley Street, London, agrees. “We’re all human so we’re prone to make mistakes as we grow up, get older and gain more experience in life,” he says.
“It may have seemed a great idea to skip university when you were 20, but now, as a mother of 43, you may well regret it as you’ve never been able to get the one job you truly want, or maybe you delayed having a family and now long for another child but you’re too old.
“You might have regrets about choices you made. A student may regret studying law or medicine because her parents wanted her to when really she loved art. Or a businesswoman might regret investing in a friend’s business because it hasn’t done well and now their relationship is strained, which is a double loss.”
How do our regrets affect us? Can’t we just dust ourselves down and start all over again, just as we did when we learnt to ride a bicycle and kept falling off?
John says the saying “Once bitten, twice shy,” is so appropriate when it comes to regret.
“Regrets can hold people back,” says John. “They can give people limiting beliefs about themselves. They don’t think they can do certain things because of something that happened in the past that they regretted. As they dwell on the regret, it gains momentum and strengthens the self-doubt and negativism.
“If a woman had a relationship with an abusive man, she may be too cautious to ever look for romance again because she believes being in love makes her miserable or that all men are going to hurt her, no matter how kind they appear at the start.
“Regret can affect our physical health too, because of the mind-body connection. If regret remains unresolved, it sits in our bodies as a negative emotion, and it can cause ill health. I’ve listened to people with life-threatening illnesses and heard the strength of their regrets in the language they use. They’re bitter about something that happened years earlier with their boss, or they wish they’d made up with a family member after an argument. They carry that regret around with them.”
So is there a way to handle regret? Core coach Julia Armstrong, who works with clients from all over the world, suggests we do a life review, and look at each area – relationships, family, friendships, work, finance, fun, health and hobbies. “Write down what you could have done,” suggests Julia. “Ask yourself what you wish you had done.
“Then go through and ask yourself why you didn’t do those things. The stories that come out at this point are fascinating. It may be that you were afraid of rejection, your mother wouldn’t let you, you were too shy, you were injured, or you didn’t have enough money.
“With most regrets, there will be a theme such as ‘I didn’t think I could do it’, or ‘It wasn’t my place’. Then try and go to a deeper level and think back to where that feeling came from. Ask yourself when you felt that way for the first time.
“It may be that you didn’t get any encouragement when you were in the hockey team at school, or you made a mistake in an entrance exam and you didn’t get a place at a school where your parents wanted you to go. We can usually trace the reason behind our regrets back to something in our childhood.”
Once we’ve stripped these beliefs down to basics, it’s time to look for the positives. This, says Julia, is the difference between getting bogged down in bitterness and bouncing back with resilience and it works by challenging all the limiting beliefs.
“A woman who regretted that she never applied for jobs that stretched her traced her feelings back to being kept down a year at school while her classmates went into higher classes,” reveals Julia. “She had grown up believing that she was stupid. That belief had limited her with her job applications and been the driver behind much of her thinking.
“When she revisited that time in her life and looked beyond the painful memories, she realised she had been ignoring all the good stories. She’d forgotten the brilliant friends she’d made by joining a new set of children, the amazing grades she achieved because she had repeated a year and the fact she became head girl at that school. By changing her memories of that time, she changed her beliefs and she started to apply for jobs that would stretch her.”
John Clayton agrees we can learn from our regrets. “If you look deep enough and hard enough, there will be a positive learning in everything. Once you have changed the meaning of the experience, you move forward.
“A woman who had been the victim of an assault regretted for years that she hadn’t taken action and sought justice against her attacker. When she looked for positive learning, she realised that her experience made her stronger and a better, more vigilant mother to her own two daughters.
“We can learn a lot from our regrets and the next time we have an opportunity, we will grab it with both hands. If we know the reason why we did or didn’t do something, we can move forward happier and more confident than ever.”