How can I stop torturing myself with regret and learn to make decisions again?
May 13, 2009 10:34 AM   Subscribe

Grass_is_always_greener Filter: How can I stop torturing myself with regret and learn to make decisions again?

For the first time in my life, I had my act together. After a year and a half in the post-college, low-wage ghetto, I had finally got my foot in the door at a respectable job. It was at a book publisher--which meant, as an English major, that I had won the lottery. I opened a savings account and started socking away money. I moved into my own place. I started dating. It seemed like I was finally on my way to becoming an adult.

And that's when I did something stupid; I chucked it all to go to grad school.

See, the same week that I accepted this job, I was also offered admission to a very seductive grad school program (a frequent escape fantasy from the low-wage ghetto days). It was interdisciplinary. It could be completed in a year-and-a-half. And--most alluring--it included an internship abroad.

So I spent six months tortured with indecision. I was loving my job--the pay was the highest I had ever received, the work was stress-free and earned me praise, my coworkers were fantastic. But it wasn't stimulating. And it didn't offer much in the way of advancement. And I had been burning to go abroad ever since a stint in Europe a few years earlier.

So I took a leap. I quit my job. I had a going away party (during which everyone told me how "brave" I was for taking a risk). I packed my bags, took out a loan, and I left town for school.

Things fell apart midway through the first semester. And while I won't go into great detail, it was pretty much the standard grad school reality check--this is seriously stressful work; this will never get me a job; if I stick with this, I'll be paying back loans forever; etc. All I wanted was an adventure. To enjoy a few quiet semesters of study and then go live abroad for a bit. The degree at the end was just to make this fantasy seem more respectable. I realized that I had bought the cereal box because I had wanted the toy inside.

And I panicked. Skittish about taking out more loans, I dropped out before I had to re-up for another semester. I made the decision ultra-quick, not even talking to the program's adviser. Just as quickly as I had left my job, I packed up my things and left my grad school. I felt like the decision to come to the program was the mistake. And that the decision to leave the program was the rational one.

But now I'm not so sure. The financial crisis has pummeled the publishing world, and the position that I left was eliminated, leaving me without a job to return to. I've been unemployed for six months. And with a scattered, post-college work history, it's looking highly unlikely that I'll convince anyone to hire me. I've had to move in with a pair of aquaintances, more or less crashing in the den of their apartment (back in the city where I had my going-away party five months earlier). I'm crushingly depressed. I should probably think again about furthering my education, but now I'm totally gun-shy about grad school.

And while I know that the program was not a good fit for me, and that I'm saving myself a lot of time and money by getting out early (recognizing a sunk cost and all that), I can't help but think that I would be less miserable if I just would have stayed. At least then I would be actively doing SOMETHING. Instead of moping around all unemployed.

SO. While this seems like a grad school drop out issue, I'm actually interested in asking about regret and indecision in general. And how to get over it. Fellow Filter-ites, have you ever been let down by trusting your gut? Lingered over a decision and made the wrong one? Messed up your life on a whim that didn't work out?

How can I let go of a mistake (or two) and finally move on?
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (18 answers total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
How can I let go of a mistake (or two) and finally move on?

A few general strategies I use that also make sense in your situation:

Look at your situation objectively and get some perspective. You characterized your situation as having "messed up your life," when clearly that is not the case. You're young, healthy, college educated, not in significant financial trouble (being broke and crashing on someone's couch is better than losing your house to foreclosure), you don't have kids to feed, etc. You have had trouble getting the kind of job you want in the worst economy since the Great Depression, but you still have friends who will let you stay at their place while you get things figured out. All in all, there are a lot of people who would trade places with you right now if they had the chance, so don't forget that.

Learn from your mistakes. If you go back to grad school, make sure you really think about why it didn't work last time and try to honestly confront those issues. In thinking about your future career aspirations, keep in mind all of the things that you liked and disliked about your previous "real" job. And for planning in general, remember back to this series of events the next time you decide to do something brave or risky. That doesn't mean you should avoid taking risks, but you should anticipate how things might go wrong and plan for those possibilities.

Take steps (even if they are small steps) to get where you want to go. Your overall goal might be to go back to grad school or get a great job, but also focus on what small things you can do right now to help you reach those goals. That might mean researching grad school options, making contacts that could help you in your career, and getting temp work to keep you afloat while you wait for a better opportunity.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:52 AM on May 13, 2009

I can't help but think that I would be less miserable if I just would have stayed.

Actually, you would be just as miserable as you're letting yourself be now. Your old position was eliminated -- which means they would have probably dumped it with you in it. So quite second-guessing your decision as the reason why you're currently in the place where you are.

If you're really down, pick up the book "When Things Fall Apart" by Pema Chodron. There's some good advice in there about how to quit beating yourself up. After I read it, I was able to let go of wrong decisions (they're gone -- they can't be remade, and maybe "wrong" is too strict of a label).

Stop looking backward. Remember the adventure you wanted? Maybe re-starting from scratch can fill that, if you keep your self together.
posted by motsque at 10:58 AM on May 13, 2009 [3 favorites]

At least you only wasted a semester. I spent two years in a grad program before finally withdrawing and I re-entered the job market just prior to the bust and spent a few more woefully underemployed. It took years before I could let go of the crushing sense of failure and not measuring up.

The only way I found to let go was to get sufficient distance from it (geographically and temporally) until it wasn't so raw. Eventually I could look back and see what factors led to the outcome and what choices I might have made differently - and what lessons about myself I could take away. It was probably the worst period of my life, but sometimes it takes something like that to clue you in to how you work best or what you want.

Being unemployed really really sucks, but my resume was a lot like yours. I finally got a job when a friend referred me internally - nothing else bore fruit. So work the hell out of that angle.

As far as how to let go... don't let all that loose time let your bitterness fester. Stay active. I had a really rough time temping or being out of work during the summers, and while nothing is going to make everything better, I suspect that constructing an actual schedule for myself and some goals beyond sending resumes into the void - even stupid ones like long walks or getting outside - would have greatly helped my mood and my ability to keep plowing away at the hunt.

Lastly, be gentle with yourself.
posted by canine epigram at 11:00 AM on May 13, 2009

I'm not sure how to get over that kind of regret. I've been thinking about posting a similar question for weeks now. I feel extremely stupid for going to an expensive school instead of a cheaper school, majoring in something I thought was prestigious and useful at the time, and spending thousands of dollars I didn't have and my father didn't have to spend on a master's degree. I'm in my thirties. I feel lost professionally and I wish I'd listened to my father, mother and brother instead of doing everything my own way. I feel like I'm living someone else's life (professionally, that is). I have coworkers that didn't spend big bucks on an expensive master's degree from a British university. It seemed so cool at the time, though, and I now feel like crying, especially when some people without my educational degrees just roll on in, no debt. They can choose entirely new fields if it strikes them.

I suppose we all make mistakes and have to just tell ourselves that we aren't the first people in history to feel this way. Also, I tell myself I'm a lot different now and the idiot I was ten years ago isn't me anymore and couldn't have been stopped from making the same decision over again anyway.
posted by anniecat at 11:03 AM on May 13, 2009

I was in a very similar situation, although I lasted out a (miserable, hellish) year at my grad program. I left $50,000 further in debt and with no degree -- nothing to show for my time.
How I have coped with that was by first convalescing. I spent a few months vegging out on my parents' couch. Then I got a random retail job and remembered I was actually good for something. I thought about what I wanted from the future and how I could get there. I considered going to another grad program in the same field, but realized it would have a lot of the same problems. I ended up going to law school, which I loved, and now I practice law, which I love even more.
And now, my grad school experience is something I look back on with little regret. I'd love not to have the debts associated with it, but that was (literally) the price of admission. I had a dream of being a professor in my field; I think I would have regretted it forever if I hadn't even tried to pursue it. What I learned while in grad school and after convinced me that the life of an academic was not for me -- but I couldn't have known that until I went.
So, reframe your mistake. It was a learning experience. You tried out that particular dream and found out it wasn't for you. Now you won't have that "what if?" haunting you for the rest of your life. You were brave. You haven't messed your life up. You'd be out of a job either way.
Get treatment for your depression. Find a job that's just a job -- easier said than done in this economy, but it can be done. You may have to take a crap retail job, like I did (I had NO post-college work experience) but it will at least put food on the table and make you feel like you're doing something. You don't have to make big decisions right now. Just take it step by step -- finding a job, renting a place, finding a better job, etc. -- and eventually you'll find you've moved on.
When I start regretting something I've done, I try to remember this: I did the best I could with what I knew at the time. If I didn't -- if I knew better and still did the wrong thing -- then I truly have something to regret. If I did the best I could, then what more can I ask of myself?
And always remember the first rule of holes: when you're in one, stop digging. Although you feel like you'd prefer to be back at grad school to be actively doing something right now, you have followed the first rule and you stopped digging.
posted by katemonster at 11:03 AM on May 13, 2009 [8 favorites]

1. Go back to grad school, but this time, have different expectations, looking at it as an opportunity to work really hard and increase your intelligence, not as an opportunity to have romantic experiences in Europe. You are obviously smart enough to handle it, or your wouldn't have done so well at the publishing company.

2. You mention the effect of the economy on the publishing industry. As a relatively recent hire at your firm, you could have been laid off there even if you hadn't gone to grad school.

Lilly Tomlin once famously remarked "Forgiveness means losing all hope of a better past." Forgive yourself, learn from what happened, and move on.
posted by 4ster at 11:14 AM on May 13, 2009

I sometimes have regrets over "wrong" decisions. And I am often paralyzed by indecision. But I remind myself: Life is not just a series of one-way streets. You can turn around and head another direction. You will never have exactly what you had before, but you can head in the direction that seems the best fit for you.

Another car metaphor: If have to start moving before you can steer.
posted by The Deej at 11:15 AM on May 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

My first year of university, I checked out completely. I got a student loan and moved out of the folks' house and failed seven out of eight courses in my first two semesters. Top that up with zero job experience and no response to my resume (which consisted of babysitting and Christmas retail temp work) and I thought I had fucked myself beyond repair. I hadn't, but it required some hard work to crawl out of it. I had a lot of regrets then. Eleven years later, I've written it off as a life lesson, valued to the tune of about $6,000, and I certainly don't regret where it led me in life.

it's looking highly unlikely that I'll convince anyone to hire me

There's your problem right there. I find the best way to move on is to have something else to sink your teeth into. You're educated and you have work experience. There is no shame in deciding that grad school wasn't for you. Trust me, I have watched lots of people in my department torture themselves trying to finish the program when it was abundantly clear that they had no desire to do so, only to drop out after years of sheer misery.

I'm finishing my MA thesis now and looking for a job. I'm calling everybody I know who has the proverbial "real job" and asking for guidance. I'm also volunteering for things related to my field while working in a coffee shop to pay the bills. Otherwise, I might just sit on my ass and mope.
posted by futureisunwritten at 11:16 AM on May 13, 2009

it's looking highly unlikely that I'll convince anyone to hire me

Deliver pizzas or wait tables. No, it's not glamorous, but it gets you up and out of the house and puts cash in your pocket fairly quickly.

How can I let go of a mistake (or two) and finally move on?

By moving on. Get a job doing something, anything, so you got some cash coming in. Make plans for getting into a better position money/career/satisfaction wise and then do it.

Sitting around, asking other people how they do it really doesn't help, unless you DO something, you know? Life is short, regrets are shit if you linger over them too long. If you made a mistake, learn from and move on.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 11:22 AM on May 13, 2009

First, repeat after me: "I am doing the best I can with the tools and knowledge that I have at the time". Repeat again each and every time you start to beat yourself up about your past choices. If this is hard to do, put on post-its around your house, car, wherever. You don't have to believe it - you just have to say it to reroute your attention away from the past.

Second, don't stay home and do nothing. Start writing your novel. Volunteer for a literacy program. Learn a craft or start a hobby. Feed your soul.
posted by metahawk at 11:30 AM on May 13, 2009 [2 favorites]

I am going to approach this from a different perspetive.

Everyone has decisions that in hindsight looks different and that one sometimes regrets. Right now, you are too close to the situation to see what things you may have gained from this (some experience? information? a friend?). As many others point out, if you stayed at your job you may have ended up at the exact same point if your job no longer exists at your old company.

Anyway, this is my suggestion. For future decisions, take a breath. Is it really a scenario A or scenario B situation? Could there have been something inbetween? Rather than running, what if you had gone to talk to your advisor or chair and had what you thought was going to be a painful conversation? There may have been other possibilities (eg, a teaching assistantship that paid provided you with a tuition waiver, or they may have let you take a semester off, or applied to a school that offered financial assistantships, etc.).

Don't beat yourself up about this. I have done the exact same thing (ie, quit jobs rather than have a conversation, which may have given me what I wanted). I think a lot of times we just see A or B and then have a conversation in our head, without asking input from people who may offer us choice C, D, E, or F. Just think about this for the next time you find yourself in the situation. Decide what you need or want in advance, pause, and wait a day or two and just have the conversation, but don't run.

Don't let your current situation convince you that you made the wrong choice, either. I've been unemployed for brief stints, and was phenomenally depressed. The second I got a new job, poof, the depression lifted.

Here is an idea - if you came from publishing and have contacts, do you have enough experience to freelance? Contact all your previous coworkers, bosses, even people at grad schol and see if you can do jobs for them. I made that jump a few months ago, and have IMO something far better than a job. Might as well give it a go, though, if you don't currently have a job. Good luck.

posted by Wolfster at 11:43 AM on May 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

This is a well-written little story. Fast, verb-y, with staggered sentence lengths, and even a nice use of Checkov's gun: describing the party early on, then revealing its significance a bit later. In fact, the party, coupled with the description of brave when maybe it wasn't brave at all, really makes this little vignette.

Now don't go trying to be a writer by ignoring your responsibility to find a job and move out of your friends' place, ok? Mis-steps, side-steps, and just plain stupid steps that turned out to be the best-thing-you-ever-did are a part of life. We can't predict the future and we mis-remember the past. Figure out what your values, talents, and goals are, build or find a framework for decision making, tune it as necessary, but be consistent and work hard and good things will happen.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 11:53 AM on May 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Why should you think about furthering your education? Grad school isn't something that you should do because you don't feel that you have other options or because you don't have a plan. It's one thing to do it if it's necessary to achieve a goal--maybe you want to teach college, or maybe you want to be a doctor. Then sure, grad school the hell out of it. But for your average Joe, grad school's going to be a lot of money for not a hell of a lot of difference in career. This is maybe especially true if you hope to work in publishing again, where so much depends on who you know and what you're able to do--not on where you got your degree.

Don't go back to school without a plan. At the same time, though, staying home and doing nothing will only make you more depressed. First off, start doing something. Anything. Wait tables. Volunteer. Get out of the house once in a while.

Then do what everyone else in publishing is doing: start freelancing. Why? Because "freelancing" fills that gap on your resume, and because pretty much everyone does it at one time or another. More importantly, it builds the sort of connections that you'll need to get another job. Call everyone you used to work with and say that hey, I'm back in the city and I'm looking for work, if you know anyone who needs a freelancer, pass my info along. Ask your friends who are still in grad school if they need their theses proofed. Post on Craigslist, if it comes to that.

The only way that I've found to get past regret is to start doing things again, even if I think that doing those things sucks. Even if I really, really don't want to. Anecdote: About three years ago, I was offered what sounded like a dream job. It was in fairly casual conversation with someone I was freelancing for, and it was such a dream job that I laughed and thought it was a joke.

Let me say that again: My dream job, offered to me on a platter, and I laughed. By the time that I realized that it was a sincere offer, it was too late to take them up on it--the position was filled. I spent about a week sulking, and then started applying for other jobs. I eventually got one, and I'm still there, and in retrospect, I'm incredibly glad that I didn't take the job I was offered. I'm really happy where I am. I like this city. I met my husband at the job that I'm at. Maybe the "dream job" would've been better for my career, but where I ended up is better for me, and I'm glad that I'm here. I hope that in a few years, you're able to look back and think the same thing.
posted by MeghanC at 12:11 PM on May 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think you need to get out into the world for a while and get some perspective. Get a job - any job. Volunteer and spend some time with people who wish that their biggest mistake was choosing the wrong grad program. It's tough to realize that your decisions have consequences, but please be aware that the consequences you are suffering are completely subjective.
posted by The Light Fantastic at 12:23 PM on May 13, 2009

With the financial crisis I've managed to convince myself that not bothering to save heavily before the recent few months was a stroke of brilliance on my part rather than a fumble. Perhaps using some clever doublethink you can convince yourself that you were just zigging and zagging and dodging getting laid off. I find it helps to meditate on how considerably stupider are decisions that many other people make.
posted by XMLicious at 2:03 PM on May 13, 2009

This has been a significant issue for me as well. I am about to finish a 3 year masters program and am realizing that this field isn't suited for me at all. Initially, I went through the whole "I wasted 3 years and $60K, my life is ruined, now I'm too old to enter another field" existential crisis too. Now, I try really hard to think of all the positive things I got instead of thinking of these years as a waste. Sure, I may not use the skilled job-specific training in another career, but now I have better interpersonal skills, I am a more articulate speaker, I have made a few good friends who will probably stick around for years to come, I have experience with the ins and outs of grad school, I know a lot about my field of study, and I learned a lot about myself, how strong I am (sticking with this program for 3 years when I hated it), and what careers WON'T work for me. Now I can use that knowledge to explore other options that should be a better fit.

And like others upthread have said - if I hadn't done this program, I would always wonder "what if...." and would regret NOT trying it.
posted by Nickel at 2:40 PM on May 13, 2009

Nthing what Nickel said. Yes, you're too close, and too burned, and too much blaming yourself. I worked in IT for many years, during which time, I worked with people who had more than one advanced degree that were in no way related to the work they were doing, except that: employers loved hiring people with wider knowledge, degrees from British universities (I'm in Canada), esp double masters. Our exec director at one time was a dentist who finished his studies, handed his papers to his mum, and went off to do what he wanted instead of the dentist she wanted. Each of these people could have construed not using their education as a failure, but didn't, at least by the time I knew them.

So, pls take the advice above from people in your field and try to stop being so hard on yourself. It was a detour, not a jump off a cliff.
posted by x46 at 5:08 PM on May 13, 2009

I'd encourage you to look at your difficulties now not like "I made two crazy decisions and screwed over my life," and instead like "I'm unemployed like X% of the country is now, and unemployment really sucks, but I'm going to find my way out of it."

Also, you learned a lot. For instance, feeling like you're building a solid financial foundation for yourself is really important. It sounds like you're heart is with what you call "being an adult." So you know, for instance, that you don't want to be in an unfunded graduate program. You probably know that you want to be working.

The sucky part is that quitting school didn't get you to where you want to be. But just because it didn't immediately put you into some awesome life doesn't mean that it wasn't a step in the right direction. You're just not there yet.
posted by salvia at 1:07 AM on May 14, 2009

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