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

Body Language -The two minute route to self-confidence

When I work with women feeling nervous before a major event, such as their first interview in ten years, I give them an instant self-assurance tip that is often met with a look of incredulity. I recommend that they find a quiet place just before the event and make a ‘Power Pose’ – taking a Wonder Woman stance or adopting the ‘starfish’ pose which Mick Jagger is modelling so effectively in the photo above. This sounds like the type of ‘too-good-to-be-true’ advice that could give psychologists a bad name, but in fact it is based on a convincing body of research evidence.
Amy Cuddy, a Harvard social psychologist, explained in a wonderful 2012 TED talk* how “making yourself big” for just two minutes changes the brain in ways that reduce anxiety, build courage and inspire self-expression and leadership. Changing our body language effectively changes the way we think and feel about ourselves. If you’re interested in the science, lab studies found that a two minute power pose increased the levels of the power chemical testosterone by around 20% and lowered the stress hormone cortisol by about 20%. What’s more, this has a knock-on effect on how we behave, how we are seen by others and the likelihood of positive outcomes. In another study Professor Cuddy reported that people who adopted high-power poses before interviews were overwhelmingly more likely to be offered the job by impartial interviewers.
Recently I followed my own advice. My nerves kicked in before my first time on national radio, appearing on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour** to discuss returnships with Jenni Murray, Julie Thornton (Head of HR at Thames Tideway Tunnel) and Carmen Nuzzo, who joined Morgan Stanley in a permanent role following their 2014 Return to Work programme. So if you had walked into the ladies’ toilets in a cafe down the road from Broadcasting House at 9.18am that day, you might have been surprised to see a blonde middle-aged woman in a green jacket striking a full-on hands-on-hips legs-wide Wonder Woman pose … and now I can personally vouch for the benefits!

Amy Cuddy’s TED talk
**Woman’s Hour feature on returnships (07:53 minutes into programme, 10 mins long)

Posted by Julianne Miles

Building Self-Efficacy – Believing that you can succeed!

The Problem with Confidence

It’s often reported that women’s self-confidence plummets during a career break. A recent study* found that women on maternity leave start to lose confidence in their ability to return to work only 11 months after giving birth.
The problem with labelling return-to-work doubts as a ‘confidence issue’ is that we use the same explanation for a wide range of setbacks that women face in the workplace: from presentation nerves to not putting ourselves forward for a promotion or (as Sheryl Sandberg would say) ‘not taking a seat at the table’. It’s become too much of a general catch-all.
I would suggest that we need a different term to describe the (often extreme) self-doubt that women can experience when they consider returning to the workplace after a long time out. This is the doubt that stops you even believing that it’s possible to get back into a satisfying role .. the doubt that made a highly talented MBA with 15 years’ experience say to me after her 6 year break “I’m a write-off – no-one will want to hire me now”. 
Self-Efficacy

From a psychology perspective, what you’re experiencing in this situation is better termed “low self-efficacy”. The psychologist Albert Bandura described self-efficacy as a person’s belief in their ability to succeed in a particular situation. If you have low self-efficacy about getting back to work, then you feel less motivated and behave in negative ways that make you less likely to achieve your goal; you see barriers as insurmountable blocks rather than challenges to overcome, you lose focus and interest more quickly, and you struggle to pick yourself up again when you hit an inevitable setback. 
Building Self-Efficacy

The encouraging thing about self-efficacy is that it’s not fixed – there are specific ways to boost it. Bandura identified four key sources of self-efficacy, three of which are within your control and the other you can influence:
1. Mastery. Performing a task successfully through hard work and effort improves self-efficacy. If you haven’t worked for many years, you will feel ‘rusty’. Create opportunities to do work-related tasks that feel daunting to you, but in a low risk environment, such as offering to chair a volunteers’ meeting or taking a training course which involves group & presentation work. 
2. Social Modelling. Seeing other people being successful raises our belief that we can do it too. We need role models! That’s why we’re collecting success stories of women who have successfully relaunched their careers. Read our stories & actively seek out women who have already gone down the road you want to take.
3. Social Persuasion. Getting encouragement from others helps us to overcome self-doubt. Spend more time with people who will encourage you and give you a boost, and less with the downbeat ‘energy vampires’ in your life! Remember that the people you are closest to may be discouraging about your return to work because they are worried about the impact it will have on their lives.
4. Psychological Responses. Better managing your stress levels and emotions can improve your confidence. Work out what helps you to feel calmer under stress – maybe having time to prepare, going for a run, or just taking a few deep breaths – and use these techniques consciously next time you’re under pressure. Think about taking a yoga or mindfulness course if you find it difficult to manage your stress levels and emotions. 
And you can use this framework to build your self-efficacy once you’re back at work too!

* AAT, 2013

Posted by Julianne

Adopting the right mindset

I’m not going to tell you to ALWAYS BE POSITIVE: we don’t claim that returning to work after a long break is easy – wishful-thinking can mean sticking your head in the sand. The ‘unrealistic’ optimist can wait for the perfect job to land in her lap or will keep going with an unsuccessful strategy (such as scatter-gun online applications) as she believes that ‘it will all come right in the end’. 
On the other hand, we commonly find that the returner who claims she is being ‘realistic’ is actually holding a pessimistic perspective that too quickly dismisses the possibility of finding a rewarding job with a reasonable lifestyle.The pessimistic ‘realist’ tends to believe the worst, rapidly hits disillusionment when she hits a few setbacks and decides that it’s hopeless and not worth the effort.
I prefer the perspective of psychologist Sandra Schneider who suggests that optimism and realism are not in conflict – we need both. She proposes that we aim for ‘realistic optimism’. The realistic optimist finds out the facts and the data; she 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 opportunities in the future.
How to develop your ‘realistic optimism’ in practice

You face a setback, for example you’ve sent a ‘getting back in touch’ email to an old colleague and haven’t received a reply after a week. Your first response might be to conclude that she’s not interested in talking to you, she doesn’t remember you or maybe she didn’t like you anyway. So you feel dispirited, write her off as a network contact and lose motivation to pursue other contacts. Instead try this:
  • Think creatively of all the other realistic reasons why she hasn’t replied. Maybe your email is sitting in her Junk Mail, maybe she put it aside to reply to later and it got lost in her inbox, maybe she’s changed her email address, maybe she’s on holiday or working abroad or just frantically busy … there are so many possibilities.
  • Thinking about this wide variety of explanations, decide how to respond so you are in control. Send the email again to check you have the correct address, contact her through a mutual friend or pick up the phone and call her.
  • If she still doesn’t get back to you, choose a realistically optimistic interpretation that doesn’t knock your self-confidence (e.g. even if she’s too busy, you can still contact others) and try a different strategy. Continually weigh up the facts and creatively consider all your options to decide the best course of action.
There’s evidence that realistic optimism can boost your resilience and motivation, improve your day-to-day satisfaction with life and lead to better work outcomes. And it’s not about your genes – we can all learn to be realistic optimists.
Posted by Julianne
For those of you interested in the research
Schneider, S.L. (2001). In search of realistic optimism: meaning, knowledge and warm fuzziness. American Psychologist56(3), 250-263.

Are ‘shoulds’ ruling your return-to-work decisions?

I co-ran a workshop for INSEAD alumni last week on getting past the internal barriers that can keep us stuck when we want to make a career change: our fears, beliefs and ‘shoulds’. We’ve talked previously in this blog about fear of being selfish, fear of failure, and guilt. And we’ve touched on the limiting beliefs that can unconsciously hold us back, such as “there aren’t any good part time jobs out there” or “I’m too old to go into something different“. If you’re feeling stuck, there may be another mental trap you have set up for yourself without realising it – your ‘shoulds’. Do you recognise any of these …?

“I should look for a safe and secure job”
“I should stick with what I’m good at”
“I should stay at home while my children are young”
“I should always be available for my family”
“I shouldn’t waste my qualifications”
“I shouldn’t take a low-paying job” 

When we say ‘I should’ we don’t always mean “I want to” – we may just feel a pressure to behave in a certain way. It helps to understand the psychological basis for this. As we go through life, we develop certain values based on repeated messages we’ve received from other important people in our lives*. Often it’s from our parents, sometimes it’s our teachers, or it may be friends, or respected colleagues. If our father tells us enough times that we ‘shouldn’t waste our qualifications’, this can become an implicit rule that we live our lives by without questioning whether it is a choice that we ourselves want to make. These inner ‘rules’ can unconsciously keep you unhappily at home (or drive you reluctantly back to work) or stop you from changing to a more satisfying job when you do return to work.

Our values can be influenced by where we are living or the society we have grown up in. One of my clients, Isabelle, a French accountant, was full of guilt for taking a career break. Isabelle’s mother had been a ‘career woman’ who had told her that “women should earn their own money” and all her equally well-educated friends in Paris were working mothers and could not understand why she had not returned to work. She felt a push to return to a prestigious job even though she was concerned about not having enough time for her family: “I should be using my education” was how she put it. Another client from Germany faced a different set of cultural norms; Karin wanted to return to work but felt pressured into staying at home because it was the expectation in her town that mothers of primary-age children did not work. As she explained, “I feel it should be enough for me to be concentrating on raising my children”.

It’s worth listening to what you’re telling yourself or other people when you’re debating returning to work. We’re often not aware of the difference between our ‘shoulds’ and our ‘wants”. Next time you find yourself saying “I should” try changing it to ‘I want to’ or ‘I choose to” and see if it is still true. If you realise that this is not your choice, ask yourself if this is someone else’s value that you’re ready to let go of. Of course it’s not always that simple to get rid of a long-held belief, but maybe it will start to free you up to see a broader range of options.

* Carl Rogers, the founder of humanistic psychology, described back in the 1960s how we ‘introject’ other influential people’s values and suggested that we need to ‘shed the shoulds and oughts’ to develop our personal value system.

Posted by Julianne

Shall I return to work or not? Ambivalence and transitions

Back to school and back to blogging… During the last few weeks of the summer holidays I’ve felt a real pull between wanting to enjoy the good weather and to spend relaxed time with my teenage children, and the desire to get my mind focused on work again. It reminded me of the conflicting feelings I experienced when I was moving back into work after my career break. I knew that I wanted to start a new career, but I was worried about the complications and possible stresses of being a working mother.

For many women returners, this uncertainty can keep us awake at 4am, inwardly debating pros and cons and never coming to a clear-cut conclusion. Because we feel ambivalent, we question whether it is the right decision. As one of my coaching clients asked me recently: “I keep having nagging worries about going back to work, so does that means it’s not the right thing to do?” 

Coping with ambivalence and transition

William Bridges, who has been researching life transitions since the 1970’s, reassures us that few changes are universally positive, “letting go [of our old life] is at best an ambiguous experience”. So just because you feel confused and unsettled, it doesn’t mean that you are making the wrong choice. Bridges explains that when we make a change in our lives we go through a transition period of psychological readjustment, when up-and-down emotions are completely natural. If we anticipate this unsettled period, we are less likely to retreat back to our comfort zone without even exploring the alternatives.

Be both rational and intuitive

If you’re stuck endlessly debating rational pros & cons of returning to work, it can help to use your more intuitive side. Imagine yourself at 70, looking back on yourself today. Is your 70 year old self sympathetic or impatient with your current indecisiveness? What advice would your future self give you? Would she encourage you to make a change and relaunch into the workplace now or to wait a while longer or maybe to make other changes to your life?

Has anyone felt 100% certain that going back to work was the right decision?

Posted by Julianne

Do all working mothers have to feel guilty?

“Since I returned to
work after my career break I feel guilty every day. Don’t all working mothers?”

Listening to this comment from a guest speaker at an event for
women returners and seeing the nods of agreement in the audience, I was not
surprised that many women decide not to go back to work even if they are feeling unfulfilled as full-time mothers. Who
wants to sign up to years of feeling guilty?

Do all working mothers feel guilty?

The premise that a heavy burden of guilt is the lot of the working mother seems to be fairly ingrained. Not a week goes by without some mention in the media. And we are just talking about working mothers here, no-one talks about ‘working father guilt’. Just recently …

“8 out of 10 working mums feel guilty” Justine Roberts reporting results of a Mumsnet poll at Workfest, Jun 2013
“I think all women feel guilty” Sheryl Sandberg, Woman’s Hour interview, Apr 2013
“Majority of mothers admit to feeling guilty for working” Daily Mail , Jan 2013
And it’s not just in the UK …
“Working mothers still plagued by guilt” Sydney Morning Herald, Apr 2013


I’m starting to feel guilty for not feeling guilty. As one of the 2 in 10 working mothers who don’t feel guilty, is there an implicit assumption that I don’t care enough about either my work or my family (or both)?

Psychological basis for guilt

It’s worth looking at guilt from a psychological perspective. What is the function of guilt?
“From a cognitive point of view, guilt is an emotion that people experience because they’re convinced they’ve caused harm. The emotion of guilt follows directly from the thought that you are responsible for someone else’s misfortune, whether or not this is the case.” Psychology Today

So guilt is not a consequence of caring. Healthy guilt is a sign that our conscience is working effectively and can be a useful emotion if it’s telling us that something needs changing. If guilt is a warning flag that our actions might be harming our children or our co-workers, then it’s served its purpose. But feeling guilty doesn’t make you guilty. Working can have a positive effect on family life (see previous post). Often guilt comes from judging ourselves by impossible standards (back to the Perfect Mother and Employee) or being influenced by the perceived judgements of others. In this case, it’s a destructive emotion that we are allowing to reduce our life satisfaction for no reason at all.

How to challenge guilt feelings when you are returning to work

Analyse the cause of your guilt feelings. Is the emotion telling you that you are making a decision that is inconsistent with your values? Do you rationally think that you are jeopardising your relationship with your family? If so, are you able to reduce your working hours, to shift your work pattern or to work from home some days? Do you need to think about a job or career change to get more flexibility?

If you consider your choices and the trade-offs you are making and do not want to make any changes (or are practically unable to do so), then recognise that guilt is serving no useful purpose and let go of it. Guilt is not a badge of pride for working mothers, just a rod we have created for our own backs.

Posted by Julianne