Mia Woodard, 28, of Bowie, Maryland, experienced the thrill of success when she landed an entry-level job on Capitol Hill fresh out of college. But her excitement waned 8 months later after an intern was promoted over her. “After that, I was deflated,” she says. “I kept comparing myself to the intern. I even doubted that I would be able to convince people that they should take a chance on me.”
Woodard’s self-administered psychological beating is characteristic of people who find themselves in the throes of regret, says Hamilton Beazley, author of No Regrets: A Ten-Step Program for Living in the Present and Leaving the Past Behind (Wiley; $14.95). “Regrets arise from unfulfilled expectations,” asserts Beazley. “They pose a problem for us when we intentionally or repeatedly revisit them, wishing that things had been different and blaming ourselves or others when they are not.”
Such feelings can be particularly harmful in business and adversely affect your ability to make decisions. If you are distressed about past events, Beazley maintains, “you’re not as likely to make the bold or risky decision with the huge payoff because you know that if you make a mistake, you’re not going to be able to get over it.”
For Woodard, the setback she suffered two years ago led her to question her abilities. “People would say the intern was a great writer, and I thought, ‘I guess they think she’s a great writer and I’m not.’”
While negative self-criticism may seem harsh, it is actually one of the first steps to curing the problem. “We must look at the toxic thought patterns that are keeping us from letting go of a regret,” says Beazley.
The next step is equally important: determining whether your toxic thoughts are true. In Woodard’s case, the fact that the intern was a good writer did not mean she wasn’t equally qualified. “Often when something doesn’t work out, we’ll attribute it to something about us,” says Carole Stovall, a psychologist and president of Strategic Leadership Solutions, an executive coaching company in Washington, D.C. “But it’s important not to take anything personally.”
Concentrate on releasing the negative thoughts. One way is to figure out how you can improve yourself and make the necessary changes. Another effective way to discard past regrets is sharing them with a trustworthy confidante. “You have to really dig down to the gut level of your feelings and confide in someone,” says Lisa Slade Martin, a clinical psychologist in Washington, D.C. By continually telling your story, she says, you diminish the emotional connection to that past event.
Woodard chose to talk to her mother, who wisely pointed out that her coworker’s promotion should not be viewed in terms of failure. She also urged Woodard not to take the promotion personally and reminded her that it was not a reflection of her ability. As she considered her mother’s words, Woodard began to question whether she wanted to stay at her job. She eventually decided to apply to law school. “I would not have been motivated