Whether you’ve quit something of your own free will or been forcibly ejected, starting over always requires a leap of faith. Yes, there’s the exhilaration of new possibilities and the open road ahead, but there’s also that moment of free fall and the fear that, somehow, you won’t land on your feet. To echo the Jerome Kern song, here are some tips on what you can do for yourself as “you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start all over again.”
1. Manage your regrets
All of us will, inevitably, experience some regret in life; it just comes with the territory of being human. Regret can either sink you at times of stress or, if it’s processed, can actually act as a floatation device, helping to shape your decisions about your future. There’s some debate about whether, to paraphrase Robert Frost, human beings tend to regret the road taken or the road not taken more.
Famously, Amos Twersky and Daniel Kahneman found in one experiment that when participants considered the situation of two people, both of whom had lost the potential of making $1,200 under different circumstances—one through inaction (not buying stock) and the other through action (selling the stock that became valuable)—92 percent concluded that the person who had acted by selling the stock would feel more regret than the one who lost the money through inaction. But the work of Thomas Gilovic and Victoria Husted Medvec challenged that view, finding in surveys that more people regretted the actions they hadn’t taken.
Take stock of your regrets; in fact, if you need to, write them down so that you can really look at them. Do they fall into the category of action or inaction? What can you learn about yourself and your future intentions by looking at what you regret? A study by Colleen Saffrey and colleagues showed that regret can be used productively to make sense of where you’ve been, inform the decisions you’re going to make, inform your future actions and, of course, help ensure you don’t make the same mistakes again.
2. Deal with your rumination
The adage about crying over spilled milk is true enough but, for many of us, getting off the carousel of repetitive thoughts is hard, if not sometimes impossible. The work of Daniel Wegner on “white bears”—the thoughts we try to suppress but can’t —has illuminated the process by which the mind unconsciously searches for the very thoughts we’re trying not to think about. It turns out that the more we try not to think, the more we’ll actually be thinking those thoughts. Rumination is fed by being alone, so one plan is to surround yourself with some folks you trust and talk through your worries. Another suggestion, offered by Wegner, is to assign yourself a “worry time.” It can be as long or short as you wish, but devote yourself to worrying during that period alone. Consciously focusing on a worry seems counterintuitive but it too can help, as can meditation.
3. Think about your new goal in abstract terms
This strategy is offered by Charles Carver and Scheier in their classic book on self-regulation and is, I think, brilliant in its simplicity. They write that “If one path is barricaded, people need to be able to jump to another.” Thinking about your goal in abstract terms, moving away from the specifics of the situation to a more nuanced and deeper understanding of your wants and needs can help push you forward. I’m adapting here from an example Carver and Scheier give. Say you are starting over from the ending or loss of a close relationship or marriage. While finding another partner or spouse may seem impossible in the moment, recognizing that what you really want is the experience of closeness shifts your vision and opens up new possibilities for action. Similarly, if you’re starting over in the area of career, focusing on what you really want in the future (work in a supportive environment with lots of collegial contact or, alternatively, work independently and make your own hours) will help you clarify your goals and make it easier to figure out the best strategy to achieve them.
4. Adopt the right mind-set
If your mind-set can be boiled down to “full-steam ahead,” you’re not being nuanced enough. Thinking about and planning your goals requires one mind-set, and actually achieving your goal another, as work of Peter Gollwitzer has shown. The first mind-set is deliberative and it’s open-ended so you can weigh your choices and strategies, and gather all the information you need to pursue your goal. It’s at this point that you’ll want to network, solicit other opinions, and determine feasibility. The deliberate mind-set is, above all, realistic. In contrast, the implemental mind-set is focused on action; optimism is important at this stage, even though it can make you overstate your chances of success because you need the optimism to charge ahead. But by focusing, you can shift from one mind-set to the other, depending on the circumstances. This is where consciousness of not just what you’re thinking but how you’re thinking really matters. Let’s say that your approach, despite your best efforts, isn’t working. That’s a signal to get out of the implemental mode and switch back to the deliberative mind-set so that you can reconsider all of your options.
5. Motivate yourself
Harness your energy by focusing on the things you’ve done that have put you in what Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi has called “flow.” What is “flow”? Can you recall a time when you were doing something and you totally lost track of time, felt completely immersed in what you were doing, and, at the same time, felt a great sense of satisfaction and meaningfulness? That, in a nutshell, is flow. Be creative as you begin to think about what you want to do next, and get a bead on the things you do that put you in flow. Flow can be achieved through many activities— gardening, knitting, writing, playing sports, helping others, and almost anything else—and try to think about those activities in more abstract terms. What parts of them put you in flow? Is there a way of incorporating some of those experiences into where you’re going next?
It’s spring and a dandy time to start over, in small ways and large. Good luck!
Copyright © Peg Streep 2014
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Kaheman, Daniel. Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011.
Gilovic, Thomas and Victoria Husted Medved, “The Experience of Regret: What, When, and Why,” Psychological Review, 102, no.2 (1995), 379=395.
Saffrey, Colleen, Amy Summerville, and Neal J. Roese, ”Praise for Regret: People Value Regret Above Other Negative Emotions,” Motivation and Emotion, 31, no.1 (March 2008), 46-54.
Wegner, Daniel, White Bears and Other Unwanted Thoughts. New York and London: Guilford Press, 1994.
Wegner, Daniel. “Setting Free the White Bears: Escape from Thought Suppression.” American Psychologist (November 2011), 671-679.
Carver, Charles S. and Michael F. Scheier. On the Self-Regulation of Behavior. New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.
Gollwitzer, Peter, “Action Phases and Mindsets,” in Handbook of Motivation and Cognition, ed. E. Tory Higgins and Richard Sorrentino. New York: Guildford Press, 1990.
Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. New York: Harper Perennial, 2008.