How to manage uncertainty and take control

Hazel Little, Women Returners Client and Relationship Director, has created a short webinar on “How to Manage Uncertainty and Take Control” as part of our new series to support our network through the COVID-19 crisis. Here’s a summary of some of the key points, with a link at the end if you want to watch the full 10 minute webinar.

In times of uncertainty we can feel overwhelmed. It’s difficult to know where to start, what to do and importantly how to switch off from it all. The pandemic is changing how we live and it’s changing it fast. All of this can make us feel anxious and worried and we risk getting into a negative downward spiral.

Rational v. Emotional

Extreme uncertainty and lack of control affect us mentally. Our rational brains have stepped to the side and our emotional brains are in the driving seat. When we are led by our emotions it makes it difficult to see things clearly, but there is a positive side. Understanding how we feel and what we’re anxious about, can drive us to take control and motivate us to take action.

Taking Control

Stephen Covey’s Circle of Concern is a great framework to help you to work out what actions you can take.

  • There will be a large number of different things that you are concerned about right now, including how the crisis will impact your return to work. Identify and write a long list of these concerns – these populate your Circle of Concern
  • Flag those concerns where you can directly control the outcome – these come within your Circle of Control
  • For the remainder, challenge yourself to see if there is any action at all you can take to influence a positive outcome. If so, these come under your Circle of Influence. For example, your concern might be “employers have put recruitment on hold, I’m not going to be able to return to work”; you can’t control when they start recruiting again but you can influence the outcome by getting your CV updated or make use of free courses to upskill online to ensure you are in a stronger position when the time is right to apply.

Focus as much as possible of your time, energy and attention on addressing concerns within the Circles of Control and Influence, rather than focusing on what is out of your control. You may well find that your Circle of Influence gets bigger if you think this way. By deliberately taking relevant actions to improve the outcome, you are likely to feel more productive, calmer and happier.

Other Top Tips to Manage Uncertainty

  1. Surround yourself with positive people – stay connected with your support groups and seek out people who help you to feel more optimistic
  2. If you’ve time, look for growth opportunities – upskill online or read articles relating your field. This will help you feel more knowledgeable and it’s great distraction
  3. Set small achievable goals – refresh your CV/cover letter or prepare for a virtual interview process, taking it a couple of small steps at a time
  4. Look after yourself – you’re on an emotional roller coaster and that is draining both psychically and mentally. Read a book, enjoy a little quiet time, be kind to yourself.

Find out more

In our short webinar, How to Manage Uncertainty and Take Control, you’ll find more information on the nature of uncertainty, the importance of regaining control and advice on how to look after your emotional well-being.  You can watch the webinar here.

For more details on our COVID-19 Support Webinars see: Free Webinar Series

Realistic optimism and Covid support

With the worries, uncertainty and practical changes resulting from COVID-19, we are developing new ways to support the Women Returners community over the coming months.
We’re planning a series of free short webinars with advice on topics such as coping with uncertainty and virtual interviewing. Watch for announcements on womenreturners.com and we’ll put out a summary from each webinar on this blog. In the meantime, here are some initial tips on coping in the current climate.

Pause for Perspective

Given our predisposition to negative thinking, it’s easy for our minds to race to the worse possible outcome right now, whether this be our chances of getting back to work after a break, the health of our family or the state of the world economy. You may be feeling anxious and frustrated that your plans are put on hold for an uncertain period of time, and even wondering if you’ll now ever get back to work.

This is the moment we need to pause and to consciously try to regain perspective before accepting the worse case scenario. We’re not suggesting ignoring the crisis – we’re well aware that these are some of the toughest times many of us will face. However, it is a moment to aim for a mindset of ‘realistic optimism’, as psychology research has found this can help to boost your resilience and motivation in difficult situations.

What is Realistic Optimism?

This isn’t about putting your head in the sand or blind optimism. As psychologist Sandra Schneider tells us, optimism and realism are not in conflict – we need both. Realistic optimists are cautiously hopeful that things will work out the way they want and will do everything they can to ensure a good outcome. The realistic optimist finds out the facts and acknowledges the challenges and constraints she faces. Her optimism comes into play in her interpretation of ambiguous events and uncertain situations such as the one we’re currently in. She recognises that many situations have a range of possible interpretations and chooses a helpful rather than an unhelpful one. She is aware of the positives as well as the negatives in each situation and actively looks for future opportunities, focusing on what she can control rather than what she has no influence over.

Find out the Facts

To build this more resilient mindset, and avoid getting into a downward mental spiral, it helps to look out for and consider some positive facts alongside the overwhelmingly negative ones. For example, in the context of returning to work:

  • The hard reality is that many people are facing unemployment and a lot of recruitment is being put on hold. However, a significant number of employers are adopting a ‘business as usual’ attitude, adapting rapidly to a virtual world. There are still many jobs being advertised and we’re finding this is applying to returner programmes as well as regular recruitment.
  • Some businesses have an upturn of demand in the current climate and are facing skills shortages and increasing recruitment (such as Amazon).
  • There is a widespread call for nurses, midwives, occupational therapists and other healthcare specialists who have left the professional register to return to the NHS to cope with the crisis.
  • Indications from countries who were affected earlier are that the effects are time-limited and so we can all plan for normality starting to return after the summer.

Ease the Pressure on Yourself

It will help you to gain perspective if you relax the pressure you’re putting on yourself. If your family is sick, or you now have children at home all day, your priorities will inevitably shift. That’s OK. You don’t need to completely abandon your Back to Work To-Do List, but it may be put on hold for a while and you definitely won’t make the same progress you were making before.

Similarly if you do now have school-age children at home, forget perfect parenting and be flexible about adjustments you all need to make. Try to establish a routine that works for everyone and don’t put yourself at the bottom of the pile.

You can find more practical tips on maintaining your mental health in this Forbes article: Coronavirus creating stress? And LinkedIn has put out 16 free courses including managing stress for positive change and building resilience .

For those of you with more time on your hands now, you can find advice on upskilling and improving your chance of a successful return to work when normality resumes in our Advice Hub. And Sign up to our free Women Returners Professional Network to receive our emails and updates with more support and advice.

Returning to work? Don’t let Imposter Syndrome hold you back

Do you sometimes feel that you don’t deserve your success or that your achievements are flukes that can be put down to just good luck? Do you feel that it’s only a matter of time until you are ‘found out’?

If you do then you’re certainly not alone. These feelings are so common they have a name – Imposter Syndrome.

Imposter Syndrome was first identified by psychologists in 1978. There are three defining features: a belief that others have an inflated view of your abilities, a fear that your true abilities will be found out, and a tendency to attribute your success to luck or extreme effort. There have been many studies into Imposter Syndrome since then, including one in 2011 that found that 70% of people will experience the phenomenon at some point in their lives. And it’s not just a ‘women’s issue’ –  research now suggests that men are just as likely as women to experience impostorism. 

Imposter Syndrome is most common when we’re moving out of our comfort zone and facing periods of change or uncertainty … such as returning to work after a long career break.

If Imposter Syndrome strikes, here are our tips to help you tackle it:

1. Remember these feelings are normal. Imposter Syndrome can affect anyone, even people who seem to be the most confident and capable. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg has been quoted as saying: “There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud, not sure I should be where I am.” And even Albert Einstein considered himself an “involuntary swindler.” 

2. Avoid putting your successes down to luck. Write down all your career and personal achievements to date, and think about the role that your abilities and hard work played. It will become clear to you that your successes were largely due to your hard work and abilities – not ‘just luck’. Read this blog for advice. 

3. Reconnect with your professional self. If you’re doubting yourself because it’s been a while since you were in the workplace, remember that you are the same professional person you always were, you are just out of practice. Aim to reframe your time outside the workplace as a positive not a negative.

4. Ask friends and family for feedback on your strengths and skills.
 Listening to what others say about what you do well will help you challenge your negative thoughts. Remember – you’re often your own harshest critic.

5. Keep a feedback log. Once you’re back in a new role, keep a log of all the positive feedback you receive – via formal feedback sessions, thank you emails or verbal compliments. If Imposter Syndrome does hit, look at this log to remind yourself that you are a competent and experienced professional who deserves to be where you are.


Sign up to our free network for more advice, support and job opportunities.You’ll find much more help and advice on our website.

How to develop a growth mindset

Psychologist Carol Dweck is one of the world’s leading authorities on motivation. Throughout her career she’s focused on why some people succeed and others fail.

In her TedTalk (above) – Developing a Growth Mindset – Dweck explains that those who have a fixed mindset believe that their intelligence and abilities are static and that they don’t have the capacity to change. On the other hand, those with a growth mindset know that these qualities can be continually developed and improved through hard work and persistence. 

In adults returning to work, a fixed mindset can manifest itself in thoughts like “I’m too old to move into a new area”, “I’m hopeless with new technology” or “I’m no good at networking”. Remaining open to growth and self improvement will greatly improve your chances of success in finding a satisfying and fulfilling role.

How to adopt a fixed mindset

1. Believe in the power of ‘not yet’. In her TedTalk, Dweck gives the example of a school in Chicago which replaced a ‘fail’ grade with ‘not yet’ and saw a huge improvement in student performance. If your job application is rejected, a ‘not yet’ attitude can stop you from giving up and encourage you to explore different option and strategies to achieve your goal.
2. Don’t see obstacles that stand between where you are now and where you want to be as immovable barriers, but rather as challenges or hurdles to overcome – opportunities to develop new skills and acquire more experience.
3. Seek out feedback with an open mind. We know it’s difficult, but try not to see negative feedback as a judgement of your competence but rather as an opportunity to learn and grow. Listen to what family, friends and former colleagues tell you, and make sure you ask for specific feedback if your job application is rejected after interview. What you learn can help you make changes to bring you closer to success next time around.
4. Take action. Adopting a growth mindset means believing in the power of neuroplasticity, that the brain can continue to make new connections in adulthood or strengthen connections that you haven’t used for a while. You can help to realise your own potential through learning new skills or practising ones that are a bit rusty.
5. Move out of your comfort zone. Conquering something that scares you is a useful way to teach yourself that you can grow and move forward. Celebrate your successes and seek out yet more opportunities to challenge yourself! 

Carol Dweck is the author of Mindset: How You Can Fulfil Your Potential

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You’ll find much more help and advice on our website.

Adopting the right mindset for your return to work

For many people, September brings with it that old ‘back to school’ feeling – a sense of fresh starts, renewed energy and optimism. And, of course, September is a great time to kickstart your return to work journey as companies tend to start hiring again after the summertime lull. So how do you capitalise on this ‘new start’ feeling to help you achieve a successful return to work? One of the most important things is to adopt the correct mindset.

If you’ve been out of the workplace for a number of years, it can be hard to approach your journey with unremitting optimism and indeed this can be damaging to your progress and self-esteem. Being too optimistic, without adding a dose of realism, can lead to unrealistic expectations. For example, underestimating the effort needed or a feeling that if you just keep using the same job search methods, even if they’re not working, everything will ‘come right’ in the end.

On the other hand, we often find that the returner who claims she is being ‘realistic’ actually has a pessimistic perspective and that she too quickly dismisses the possibility of finding a rewarding job. The ‘pessimistic realist’ tends to believe the worst, quickly becomes disillusioned when she hits a few setbacks and decides that returning to work is hopeless and not worth the effort.

A more effective mindset

Far better to adopt a mindset of ‘realistic optimism’ – as psychologist Sandra Schneider advocates. Schneider tells us that optimism and realism are not in conflict – we need both. Realistic optimists are cautiously hopeful that things will work out the way they want and will do everything they can to ensure a good outcome. The realistic optimist finds out the facts and acknowledges the challenges and constraints she faces. Her optimism comes into play in her interpretation of ambiguous events. She recognises that many situations have a range of possible interpretations and chooses a helpful rather than an unhelpful one. She gives people the benefit of the doubt, is aware of the positives in her current situation and actively looks for future opportunities.

Here’s an example in practice. You send a ‘getting back in touch’ email to a former work colleague and don’t receive a response after a week. It’s all too easy to conclude that she just isn’t interested in talking to you, but consider other interpretations. Perhaps she’s on holiday, swamped with work and hasn’t had time to reply, or the email has landed in her junk mailbox. Now decide how to respond: contact her through a mutual friend, resend the email in a week, contact her via LinkedIn or even pick up the phone and call her. If she still doesn’t respond, choose a realistically optimistic interpretation (e.g. she’s too busy) and focus on making other connections.

Tips to develop your mindset

Here are 5 of our tips to help you adopt a more ‘realistic optimism’ mindset for your return to work:

  1. Combine a positive attitude with a clear evaluation of the challenges ahead. Don’t expect your journey to be a smooth one – you are likely to have setbacks – but trust that you have the ability to get yourself back on track
  2. Avoid dwelling on the negatives or jumping to overly negative conclusions. Recognise this ‘negativity bias’ is a result of how our brains are built (read more on this here)
  3. Don’t wait for the right time – it may never come. Simply taking action will move you forward
  4. Focus on what you can control rather than worrying about what you can’t
  5. If you think that lack of confidence is making you pessimistic, check out our advice on how to re-establish your confidence

There is evidence that ‘realistic optimism’ can boost your resilience and motivation, improve your day-to-day satisfaction with life and lead to better outcomes. And be reassured that it’s not about your genes – we can all learn to be realistic optimists!

If you are interested in Sandra Schneider’s research see:
Schneider, S.L. (2001). In search of realistic optimism: meaning, knowledge and warm fuzziness. American Psychologist, 56(3), 250-263.

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Tackling fears about returning to work after a career break

We are witnessing a very real change in the employment landscape for women returning to work after a career break. Employers are coming up with innovative ideas to attract and retain women, and showing willingness to implement the changes needed to entice returners. All in all, there’s never been a better time to return to work, so what’s stopping more women from taking advantage of these opportunities?

Elaine Russell, who heads up Women Returners in Ireland, and Karin Lanigan, Manager of Career Development and Recruitment Services for Chartered Accountants Ireland, talked to The Irish Times Women in Business Podcast about the common fears and challenges faced by women who are considering a return to the workplace. Below we have pulled out some of the key points and you can also listen to the full podcast episode here.

I’ve been out of the workplace for too long
You mustn’t let the length of time you’ve been out of work stop you from going back. We have worked with returners who have been out for 15 years or more and have successfully returned to professional-level work through returner programmes or through their networks. Remember that the length of your break doesn’t change your strengths, which are an integral part of who you are, and doesn’t wipe out the career experience you had beforehand.

Also, you don’t need to talk about the length of your career break when introducing yourself to prospective employers. Do reference it – don’t apologise or defend it – however, focus predominantly on your previous experience and what you want to do going forward.

I’m too old
Diversity is a hot topic right now, with many companies actively looking at ways of attracting older people. We’re seeing more and more women in their 50’s returning to the workplace, where they’re appreciated for their maturity, experience, perspective and stability.

I can’t get to grips with new technology
Technology moves quickly and some returners fear they’ll never catch up. However, it’s worth remembering that this rapidity of change means that everyone has to work hard to keep abreast of developments, even those people who have never had a career break. If you take some time to get yourself up to speed, you may actually be in a stronger position than others who haven’t had that time. It’s also worth bearing in mind that technology in the workplace is not so different to the technology we use at home these days, and so you might well find that you’re not as out of the loop as you may think!

I’ve lost my confidence
We know that women typically have less confidence when valuing their professional worth. Combine this with an extended career break, and professional confidence can truly plummet. It’s important to work on building your self-confidence so that you’re ready to go back into work with a positive mindset. Reconnect with your professional self and remember the value of your past qualifications and experience, and also of the skills you have gained outside of the workplace.

I can’t compete with applicants who haven’t take time out
Companies are actively looking for people like you, i.e. people who have taken time out and are coming back to the workplace with renewed energy. Remember that your time off is an asset in itself, and that during that time you gained a breadth of perspective and many new skills which you can feel proud of.

I’m scared of networking
While we often think of ‘networking’ as a process of selling ourselves, which can be a scary prospect, it’s more about meeting and chatting to people, which is what we do all the time. Networking can be enjoyable! You’re not asking for a job – you’re letting people know  about your previous work experience and what you’d like to do now, to see if you can get advice and information. Remember that most people want to help and are generous with their time.

I don’t have recent experience
Experience doesn’t have to be recent to give you credibility. Think back on the successes from your career: make a list and remind yourself of your achievements, perhaps even contacting former colleagues who can jog your memory. It doesn’t matter how long ago it was, it still counts.

If you want even more inspiration, take a look at the returner success stories on our website, and read about how those women and men overcame their own personal challenges to successfully return to work after an extended break.

Read more on Tackling Return-to-Work Fears and Doubts here.

Posted by Elaine

Make stress your friend

It can feel very stressful going back to work: networking, knock-backs, interviews, and the inevitable pressures that a new job brings, no matter how happy you are to be back.
We’re used to seeing stress as a bad thing to be avoided. That’s why I love this 2013 TED Talk by Stanford Health Psychologist Kelly McGonigal. She explains how new research has found that how we think about stress transforms our experience of it – stress may only be bad for you if you believe that to be the case. If we see stress as helpful, it can help us to be more courageous and to rise to a challenge. She also explains how caring for others makes us more resilient  – less surprising, but good to hear the research!
Posted by Julianne

How to reduce your risk to an employer

What can I do if my sector doesn’t offer returnships?

Returnships sound great but there aren’t any in my city/country. What can I do instead?
It’s so competitive to get on a returnship programme. Are there any alternatives?

We’re proud to have spearheaded the development of returnships in the UK and to know that so many women have already found their way back to corporate roles through this route. As yet this pathway is only available to relatively small numbers in certain sectors & geographies, however the learnings can be applied for all of you wanting to resume your previous careers.

A core part of the business case for returnships is that organisations can increase their gender/age diversity while managing the perceived risk of bringing in someone who has taken a career break. We’re well aware of the unconscious bias against people without recent experience. It’s this risk factor which is often the reason why you don’t get through the initial CV screen for a job you’d previously have walked into, or why you make it through the early interview rounds but get pipped at the post once again by someone with current experience.

Returnships reduce the risk for the hiring manager by building in a trial period where the organisation gets to know you and what you can do, so it’s easier for them to decide if and where you’ll fit in the business. And the process is working: in the vast majority of UK returner programmes, 50-90% of participants have been taken on into ongoing roles (& don’t forget that some of the returners who don’t stay on have made the decision not to, as it’s not the right time or fit for them).

So how can you get a foot in the door if a returnship isn’t open to you? Think risk-reduction…


Two ways to reduce your risk to employers

1. Temporary roles
Use fixed-term contracts, maternity covers and projects as a stepping stone into an organisation you’d like to work for. You may find these through your ex-employer or ex-colleagues, through network contacts or possibly through agencies and job boards. Companies find these positions much harder to fill, as high-calibre employed people are reluctant to move for a temp role. Once you’re in, as with a returnship, you need to make sure that you network effectively within the organisation as well as doing a great job in your role. Then at the end of the contract, if you’re not offered a permanent position in your team, you’re more likely to find something elsewhere in the business. And even if there aren’t any opportunities to stay on, you’ll been seen as a lower risk option for a future employer as you can show recent experience on your CV.

2. Trial period
If you’re applying directly for a permanent role and are sensing that the hiring manager is seeing your CV gap as an insurmountable barrier, suggest a trial period, either doing the role initially on a contract basis or taking on a specific project. Once you have the chance to show your skills and you’re a known quantity, the risk factor rapidly diminishes and you’re in a strong position to be taken on as a permanent employee.

Further Reading
The ‘CV gap’ barrier: Evidence it exists & how to get over it
Victoria’s story of starting back on a maternity cover.

Posted by Julianne

Don’t Talk Yourself Out of an Opportunity

Cheryl McGee Wallace, is a Financial Services Manager at PwC UK who returned to work after a 6 year career break. If you’re doubting that networking can help you to make a successful return to work, or if you’ve no idea about informational interviewing, read Cheryl’s post below for inspiration.

About a year ago I planned an alumni event on networking. Led by an experienced career coach, we were given role-playing exercises on introducing ourselves as well as entering and exiting ongoing conversations in a social setting. Over the course of the evening one voice stood out for me. My radar went up. I knew those questions, that doubt. She was a returner. After the session ended, I introduced myself, and I was right. She was a human rights lawyer volunteering for a refugee NGO and wanted to know how she should introduce herself if she was not being paid. I was flabbergasted. All I heard was “international human rights lawyer.” She injected the doubt.

How often, I wonder, do women returners talk themselves out of opportunities without ever trying?

In my own re-entry story, I confronted voices of doubt. Adding my own to that chorus would have stopped me in my tracks. There is no single way to on-ramp. It is your story to write as you will. Nevertheless, one must acknowledge what reality dictates: our preferred end is not guaranteed. We will confront detours and closed doors just as we would in the absence of a non-traditional career path.

Explore, investigate, research, and prepare

You are an outsider in need of inside information. You need to clarify your best point of re-entry and understand how the market views your skills. You need to understand the risks that would prevent a potential employer from considering your candidacy.

Develop an elevator pitch and practice it.  Think of three important things you want someone to remember about you. Determine your personal brand and be consistent. What is your unique value proposition? What differentiates you from others? You want them to say: “I remember that person.  She’s the x, y, and z.” This will evolve over time as you gain experience and insights to refine your message.

Conducting informational interviews is the most critical data collecting activity you can undertake. When approached correctly, these one-on-one meetings will help you to obtain personalized feedback, direction, an insider’s perspective, industry lingo, and ideas.

Do not expect the insider to do all the work. You must prepare. Consider why you want to meet this person and the information you would like to obtain from the meeting. Research the individual and the firm before the meeting.

Tailor your questions specifically to that individual, firm, and industry. At a minimum, ask the insider: Who succeeds or fails in this environment? What was your career trajectory? What professional organizations or periodicals do you recommend? Is there anyone else whom you think I should meet? Follow up with a thank-you note and send periodic (meaningful) updates.

You are exploring. Initial meetings may be more challenging, but as you gain experience and clarity on your goals, such meetings will likely become less fraught. For this reason, it is also best to prioritize contacts within your target firms. Meeting junior staff may be more useful early in the information gathering process. Save hiring managers and senior executives for when your message and targets are more refined.

Informational interviews need not be formal. An informal invitation for coffee or drinks can be low risk and pleasant for both. (I often had to remind myself to breathe and enjoy the process of meeting such generous and fascinating people.) As I progressed to identifying target firms, however, it became increasingly important to visit the office for a “pre-interview” assessment of the environment. Be flexible, though. Often a quick call may be all your insider can spare.

Incorporate feedback

Relaunching is a process, not an event. You are constantly learning from every interaction (or lack thereof). The objective is to clarify your goals, which will ultimately help you to articulate your value proposition with clarity and confidence. Which version of your pitch worked best? Is your networking path effective in helping you to meet the right people in your target industry or firms? Are you hearing similar questions from your informational interviews, e.g., are you being asked to explain the same aspect of your professional background? Does your response raise more questions than it answers?

Create your opportunities

There is nothing stopping you from re-entering the workforce. While you may have to endure detours or even closed doors, opportunities do exist. Where they do not exist, it is within your power to make your own opportunities.

Consider the fact that the only difference between returning and not returning may well be a belief in your own ability. Belief reinforces choices and behavior.

Someone out there needs your skills. It is your responsibility to find them.


Further Reading
Read Cheryl’s personal story of how networking enabled her to find a new role and move to a new country.

Note: A version of this blog previously appeared on iRelaunch.com

How to avoid living with regrets

Any of these sound familiar …?

I should have chosen a more flexible career
I should have spent more time with my kids when they were babies/teens
I should have carried on working rather than giving up my career
I should have spent more time with my mother/father when they were ill
I should have taken that job opportunity
I should have stayed in better touch with …
I should have studied [..] instead of [..]

On top of guilt, regret about past actions or choices can be another way in which we endlessly beat ourselves up.

Fear of future regrets can also stop you from making important life decisions. If you’re thinking about going back to work, you might be worrying that you will regret spending less time with your family, or alternatively if you’re considering taking a career break, you might be afraid of regretting ‘giving up’ your career.

How can we manage regret? A good start point is understanding more about why it exists and what is most likely to trigger it.

Psychology of Regret
Regret involves blaming ourselves or feeling a sense of loss about what might have been. Like all negative emotions, it exists for a reason. Regret is useful if it encourages you to re-evaluate your past choices and then galvanises you to refocus on what’s important or to take a different path. Regrets can be a call to action – pushing you to pick up your career or to spend more time with people who matter to you. Neal Roese from Kellogg University, who has studied regret among younger people, found that overall they see regret as positive as it motivates them to make changes. You can also be encouraged to take action by fear of future regrets: one of the factors that strengthened my decision to retrain in my 30s was that I knew I would regret it if I didn’t give it a go.

However, there is a powerful potential down-side. If you have limited opportunity to change the situation, which is more likely as you get older, regret can be destructive – leading to self-blame, frustration, an inability to make decisions and sometimes even to stress and depression.

Our greatest regrets
Thomas Gilovich at Cornell University spent a decade studying the psychology of regret, mainly by asking people to look back over their lives and to describe their biggest regret. Over the long term, 75% of people regretted not doing something more than the actions they had taken, even those which had led to failure and unhappiness. The top 3 regrets were not working hard enough at school, not taking advantage of an opportunity and not spending enough time with family and friends.
Psychologist Richard Wiseman explains the rationale. It’s far easier to see the negative side of a poor decision you made than the consequences of something that didn’t happen. You can see the tangible results of making a bad career decision on your life now. However, if you didn’t accept that job offer, then the possible positive benefits are endless and it’s easy to fantasise about the great life you would have had if only you’d made the right decision at the time.

How to tackle regrets

If you have regrets about actions you took or didn’t take in your past:

  • Recognise that everyone makes mistakes, and that the best thing you can do is to look forward. What actions you can take now to correct the situation: go back to study/retrain; take small steps to restart your old career; make more time for friends; make that phone call?
  • If you can’t take corrective action, Wiseman suggests “Ring-fencing Regret” to create a more balanced perspective. Imagine a ring fence around the ‘what might have been’ benefits that you keep thinking about. Instead of focusing on these, think about 3 benefits of your current situation and 3 negative consequences that might have happened had you taken the action that is causing your regret.

If you’re worrying about future regrets from actions you want to take now:

  • Remember that you’re more likely in the long-term to regret the things you don’t do than the things you do
  • Seize the opportunities that come to you and take small step actions rather than procrastinating: make the time, face your fears, try things out. This is the best way to prevent looking back in 10 years’ time and thinking “I should have …”
 
Refs & other reading
59 Seconds, Richard Wiseman. One of my favourite books on how psychology research can change your life, including a chapter on regret
The Psychology of Regret. Online article in Psychology Today
Posted by Julianne