How to stop ruminating on "what could have been"
April 27, 2013 12:55 PM   Subscribe

I chose a degree path that ended up being much different than I expected, and regularly beat myself up for not choosing a certain other one four years ago. In all honesty, the "other" choice would have definitely come with its own problems, and may have even been worse. However, I constantly get tempted into thinking "what could have been". How do I accept that both choices probably sucked equally, and that you never know what life is going to throw at you, good or bad?

I generally believe "everything happens for a reason", and am trying desperately to focus on future possibilities rather than foggy, idealized past circumstances, but I keep ending up in this loop of "what could have been".

I guess you could call it the contrived, perverse illegitimate sibling of nostalgia.

I should note that I have an anxiety disorder.

Any advice?
posted by Seeking Direction to Human Relations (18 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I don't want to resort to sour grapes, either; I just want to stop living in past regret.
posted by Seeking Direction at 1:00 PM on April 27, 2013

Can you be more specific?

Take time to do activities you enjoy for their own sake, and to build friendships.

Recognize that career success depends mostly on building valuable skills, and very little on choosing the right major/skills to build. If you majored in something technical, keep getting more relevant technical skills to improve your career. If you majored in something non-technical, consider going back for a degree in something very technical.
posted by sninctown at 1:08 PM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

The other option would have been a six-year pharmacy degree (Pharm.D); what I ended up doing was a B.S. in Biology. Different schools; I chose the "better" of them, since I liked the setting better (at the time) and it was "higher ranked", but it turned out to be a terrible choice for multiple reasons (some my fault, some nobody's). It was clearly a boneheaded choice, career-wise. This is the main reason I keep beating myself up.

But the Pharm.D program would have probably come with its own issues. I had a bad "gut feeling" about the place, whatever you make of that.

I don't even know if I would have wanted to work as a pharmacist.

So I'm in the wrong...or not? Did I pick blindfolded?

I don't know what to think of it. I want to live in the present and future, not keep getting stranded in the past.
posted by Seeking Direction at 1:16 PM on April 27, 2013

How do I accept that both choices probably sucked equally, and that you never know what life is going to throw at you, good or bad?

I was just thinking about this not 5 minutes ago. In life you get dealt both good cards and bad cards. Someone else, who is not you, might not have the same problems/"bad cards" you have, but might not have the same advantages/"good cards"-- or any good cards-- either. The combination of my great-grandparents' divorce and the Great Depression had consequences to my family that reverberated decades down the line. On the other hand, I grew up with so many advantages that it is petty and stupid for me to wonder about "what might have been" if those other problems hadn't existed.

Or even my own decisions-- I made a few decisions about relationships that were rooted in my inexperience and inability to choose wisely or choose with confidence. I should have made much better relationship decisions early on, and my failure to do so messed with my future. I made some decisions regarding my career and education that, while they are intellectually stimulating and fulfilling, can be economically limiting compared to the more lucrative alternatives I could have pursued but didn't due to my naïveté. But those aren't permanent. I am still a good looking and (finally) a socially adept person with a good job. I can still form relationships, but this time backed up with the knowledge and wisdom I didn't have before. I might be making merely a "decent living" now because of my decisions, but I still have a great degree, a vicious work ethic, and a combination of intellect, ambition, and experience that I can leverage into something to build my future.

One thing I don't have, however, is an untreated anxiety disorder, so it is much easier for me to reorder my thoughts than it probably is for you. Looking through your posting history, a lot of your problems sound like they're rooted in your depression and anxiety disorder, and I am sorry to say that this will be a recurring theme in your life unless you seek professional treatment for those issues. I went through some tough times, but I was able to "get myself together," but that was only because the rest of my mental health was more or less intact.
posted by bright colored sock puppet at 1:18 PM on April 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

I can't tell from your question: you do know that plenty of people get a Pharm D after getting a BS in Biology? At many pharmacy schools, folks going straight through the 6 year program without getting a BS first are relatively rare. So, rather than constantly kicking yourself for not getting the Pharm D the first time around, why not think about applying to pharmacy school?
posted by hydropsyche at 1:23 PM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

The thought I would find most helpful is that you already have the degree that you have. The choice you can make today is "do I want to make the best of my situation or do I want to make myself miserable about things I can 't change." You already know that the other path would have different but probably not better. (maybe, maybe not) So, there is no rational basis for beatng yourself up about this. Sounds like your anxiety is just using this as a level for getting you all caught up in worry and unhappiness. When that happens, don't let the anxiety fool you into thinking something is actually wrong - all that is happening is just some excess anxiety running around in your body playing tricks with your mind. So just tell the anxiety to shut up. If it won't shut up, don't give it more power, tell yourself not to worry about the thoughts (it's not true) and then try to distract yourself.
posted by metahawk at 1:27 PM on April 27, 2013

Repeated relevant advice from AskMe, pertinent to this very conundrum.
posted by bright colored sock puppet at 1:27 PM on April 27, 2013 [3 favorites]

hydropsyche: I could, but I worry I'd beat myself up and think I'm stupid for not having done that in the first place. (And to pour fuel on my internal fire, the route I took cost a lot more! What did I get out of it, anyway? I don't know.)

The thing is, I do actually know why I did what I did. I gained lessons and timeless advice, some from the "school of hard knocks", though. There are certainly things I learned where I went that I would definitely have not have learned at the "other" place. I believe it really happened for a reason, whether or not it actually did.

I just don't know how I could accept that I actually did in fact grow and can now actually make that decision.

Once again, it's a completely illogical, irrational feeling. It's the ugly head of the "shouldacouldawoulda loop" rearing itself again.
posted by Seeking Direction at 1:28 PM on April 27, 2013

@ bright colored sock puppet

You actually explained it perfectly.
posted by Seeking Direction at 1:32 PM on April 27, 2013

It's just not constructive to think that way. Life is a giant crap shoot. I have absolutely made choices I regretted, but what I regretted most is when I was unhappy but didn't do anything to change it. When I quit my job I was miserable at, my only regret was not quitting sooner. I got a stupid degree in a dying field and instead of feeling trapped and regretting it, I worked on seeing how I could use it to pivot to a new career, which worked out great for me. The grass is always greener. It's cliche but oh, so true. If you are unhappy, your thoughts would be better spent on thinking of how to can fix it in the future and not harping on the past. I really feel like in 2013 (at least in America), there is no career choice you've made that you can't change. This isn't 1920 where you worked at the same place until you died. You can find something you love and do it.
posted by AppleTurnover at 1:52 PM on April 27, 2013 [4 favorites]

I should add, it was very tempting to fill myself with regret over accepting my job I was miserable at. And well, I did and do regret it, but I've moved on from it. I can never know what would've happened if I accepted a competing job offer. And there's no way I could've known when I accepted it that I'd be so miserable. I wasted far too much time feeling upset over the situation instead of immediately working on getting out of there. Like I said, my only regret was not quitting sooner. Once I set my focus on the future and not the past, I was able to find a new job that honestly turned out pretty excellent for me and I'm not sure would've been possible without the miserable job being my stepping stone. You know what the problem is already, no sense in focusing on it -- find the solution. And I don't mean any of this in a condescending way, I just want to point out that I've totally been there and you totally have the power to be happy and not worry about what-ifs.
posted by AppleTurnover at 2:09 PM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

I wish there were more to say about how to avoid dwelling on the past other than "don't do it." I know a thing or two about regrets -- I've taken several paths that, while they seemed like a good idea at the time with the information I had, have not exactly led where I hoped they would. I figure we make the best decisions we can with the information that we have, and hope they don't go too pear-shaped. Sometimes shit just sucks, but that's the cost of doing business. Can't change it, so dust yourself off and keep going. The other options don't really bear considering, as far as I can tell. I know that sounds a bit bleak, maybe, but I don't mean it as bleak. All you can really control at this point is what you do today and tomorrow, right, so might as well get on with that.
posted by Alterscape at 2:25 PM on April 27, 2013

Do these regrets mean that you don't really love what you're doing?

If not, perhaps you should consider taking a look at your options now. What you did or didn't do in the past might be instructive, but it's not actually important. What's important is constructing a life you love. If you're regretting the path not taken, then maybe you don't love the path you're on.

The four years of possibly being on the wrong path are sunk costs. They shouldn't be part of your calculation. You aren't required to throw good time or money after bad.

What do you want to do now, that's the question. And if that means getting another degree, even though you already have a degree, then that's what you should do, now.

Or think of doing something that combines all the knowledge you now have with the things that you want to do on the path you want to be in. Be creative. You never really have only two choices.

I'm 50, and a bunch of my friends are currently throwing away big investments in careers they never loved. One's a surgeon. Do you really want to wait until you're 50 to bail out on a path you don't love?
posted by musofire at 2:34 PM on April 27, 2013

Life is nothing more that what you decide to make of it *right now* and it has always been this way. Making decisions is part of the deal and if you really think about it, we are very seldom presented with options that are "right" or "wrong".

"Alternate" pathways do not exist, life doesn't work that way and you need to train your brain to stop this line of thinking because it is a distorted way of assessing your position in the world.

In Ancient Rome
There was poem
About a dog
Who had two bones
He looked at one
He licked the other
He went in circles
He dropped dead

Freedom of choice, is what you've got

posted by Slarty Bartfast at 3:02 PM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

To not get stranded in the past you have to keep moving forward, doing new things.

It actually doesn't completely stop the feelings of doubt and nostalgia, but it is the only thing that will at the very least help.
posted by heyjude at 4:14 PM on April 27, 2013 [2 favorites]

At the University of British Columbia, the PharmD is a 2-year post-bac program. I thought that it was the norm for most places to require a bachelor's degree, then another 2 for a PharmD.

Your BSc biology was probably a little broader than the first 4 years of the PharmD program you were considering. This is no bad thing.

And you're not going to be able to too much, really, with a BSc in "biology" (as opposed to physiology, kinesiology, molecular-/cell-/biochem, whatever). Go enter a 2 year PharmD program.
posted by porpoise at 4:57 PM on April 27, 2013

How do I accept that both choices probably sucked equally
"everything happens for a reason"
I should note that I have an anxiety disorder.

These are classic distortions of thought associated with anxiety and depression and I wonder if your fixation on what could have been is just another distortion. When I think about other paths I could have taken, the way I consider them is not "equally sucking" but just different. Being fixated on something other than what you currently have is probably more a manifestation of being unhappy with your current situation. You don't mention whether you are on meds or in counseling but it is evident that your mood needs attention. Perhaps what you need is to make some kind of change, but the way to do that is with the life and the options you have *now*, not by regretting not taking advantage of the options you had in the past.

If you are not doing it already, this is exactly what cognitive behavioral therapy deals with -- consciously reassessing your current situation and reformulating the questions you have before you in ways that are constructive not destructive. It takes a long time to train your mind to do this (months or years) but it is necessary and important.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 5:35 PM on April 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

Another bit of advice very specific to your situation rather than your question (and please tell me if this is not helpful and I will stop):

As a biology professor, a big part of my job is advising students who are thinking about healthcare careers. I specifically advise students to finish their BS before going for a Pharm D because of the scary high rate of burnout among pharmacists. A Pharm D only prepares you to be a pharmacist. There is nowhere else to go with that if you find yourself tired of being either a retail or hospital pharmacist. Someone with a BS in Biology and a Pharm D has many more career options--academic, clinic, government, or industry lab work, management or sales in biotech, pharma, or healthcare, etc. Most of those jobs really just aren't open to someone without the BS, nor are most other grad or professional schools.

So, if I had been your advisor when you were getting your BS, I would have told you that you were making the right decision by finishing the BS before pharmacy school.

You haven't screwed up. You are still well ahead of many people your age who do not have a college degree. There are a ton of things you can do with that degree, even if your GPA wasn't as good as you would like. Doors are not closed to you. Your life is yours and you can change it if you want to.

I was not and am not your advisor, but if there are questions I can answer, feel free to MeMail me.
posted by hydropsyche at 12:44 PM on April 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

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