You should have done that.
What if I had done that?
These are common types of wishes for something different or better after the result the was delivered.
'Should have' or 'what if' questions aren't a problem generally, but some people get stuck in thinking about them. The decision(s) was made and what followed was regrettable, traumatic or something else that is difficult to face.
Then it becomes a problem. Getting caught up in 'what if' or 'should have' thinking means you aren't living in the present moment; you are living in the past, a past that can't be changed and becomes more and more distant - while the emotional effects are held closely – as the present continues to roll past and the future becomes the now and the then.
In this case, more decisions are coming your way, but not being dealt with – either ignored, trying to reverse course or being made while the past effects are too influential. It becomes an endless loop: Reaction, that immediate, gut expression takes over, instead of responding to a new set of circumstances.
Facing a bad choice takes courage – an ability to look at why you made the decisions you did and learning from this. This is the more cognitive/rational/logical approach to moving beyond a 'what if' loop.
No one can be prepared for every possible outcome, and anxious people spend a lot of time and energy trying, but is there a simpler solution? Rather than planning for 50, 100 (more?) outcomes, prepare yourself emotionally. You have fewer possible outcomes – maybe 6 – and how you respond to each of these emotions is applicable over and over again in every situation.
Sad, anger, disgust, fear, surprise and happy. Those are the 6 basic emotions, and processing these feelings around the decisions made and the reaction can be an approach that makes you more resilient in future difficult scenarios. If anger, sadness or fear is holding you back, then knowing these are feelings that you can handle makes that decision with unknown consequences less frightening.
It's not easy at first – maybe ever – to pinpoint these basic emotions, but effort – talking to someone or journaling – can bring your awareness to a place that allows you to see deeper into yourself, and it is here – deeper – where lasting change can better take hold.
So next time you ask yourself 'What if?' or tell yourself you should have done something different take it as a cue to reset your focus to now and do the work to build yourself up for next moment.
This Topic of the Week was written by Brian Swope, MFT.