If Only I Could Go Back In Time, Or Have a Crystal Ball...
“If only I had completed my graduation, I’d have been much better off now”.
“What if I lose my job in this pandemic?”
Have you ever had these types of moments?
The “what if”, “if only” or “I wish I had/hadn’t” moments.
If you have, congratulations - you’re a normal human!
When we are hit by tragedies, setbacks, or failures, it is natural to have thoughts or feelings that are associated with regret or guilt.
Thoughts like “I wish he hadn’t taken that flight” or “I wish she had left the house a minute later or earlier” can haunt the mind after the sudden and unexpected loss of loved ones. It is totally understandable when the pain is intense and the loss is traumatic.
Even in matters that are not quite so tragic, these moments can appear in our lives.
Whether it be something related to career, relationship, financial situation, health, or the future, the moments of self-doubt, regret, or guilt seem to invade our thought process. How often have you found yourself dealing with thoughts like “I wish I hadn’t reacted like that” or the perennial favorite “If only I win the lottery…”?
I know from a personal perspective that I have had many “what if”, “if only” and “I wish I had/hadn’t” moments over the past 3 decades, especially about my career!
ORIGINS AND CONSEQUENCES
The “what if” thinking is part of human evolution. It was critical for the early human to be cautious and overthink any potential threats. Without that overcautious approach and thinking of the worst possible outcomes, the human race might not have survived. Therefore it is simply wired into our DNA to have these moments, but the trouble is when it becomes too frequent in our present-day lives where we don’t face the same kinds of existential threats to our survival.
Negative or hypothetical thinking leads to chronic worry and anxiety. It takes a person down the spiral of doom and gloom leaving them in the quicksand of despair that slowly sucks them in, squeezing every ounce of happiness, joy, or satisfaction from their lives. The feeling of “being stuck” is the perfect metaphor for someone in this situation.
Excessive “if only” thoughts or catastrophizing about the future can lead to a sense of helplessness and developing a victim mentality. People stuck in these modes always imagine what might have been without ever knowing if that outcome would have come about, or they obsess about worst-case scenarios. They develop an external locus of control believing that they have no control or influence over the events in their life often attributing everything to luck, fate, or destiny.
OH, THOSE WONDERFUL TIMES
One of the biggest traps that can hold a person back is nostalgia. I call it a trap because it can be “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” for our mindset!
Don’t get me wrong – nostalgia can be a wonderful feeling and I also indulge in it now and then. Talking of “the good old days” and “life was so simple” might provide a temporary feel-good effect but remaining in that mode can be counter-productive.
Nostalgia should be like a temporary rest stop in your life, not the destination because much as you might like it to, the past isn’t coming back. It is fine to visit memory lane, but don't rent a house there and move in!
Now imagine these scenarios:
You are reading a book and you’ve just finished reading an interesting chapter. Would that stop you from reading the remaining chapters?
You’re watching a movie and you’ve just seen a scene that has impressed you greatly. Would you just keep replaying that scene over and over without watching the rest of the film?
I’m pretty sure your answers to both questions above would’ve been an emphatic “NO”.
Similarly in life, we must move on and discover the other experiences that lie ahead. Constantly recalling past glories and the good times will hamper our future prospects.
Pause and ponder this – “You must empty yourself of yesterday’s sorrows to make room for today’s joy”.
Have you emptied yourself of your past regrets, guilts, sorrows or grudges, and are you ready to receive?
THE WAY FORWARD
If you are resonating with what you’re reading in this article and need some help in pulling yourself out of the “quicksand”, here are some tips from experts who’ve spent years researching the “what if” and “if only” kinds of mindsets:
Observe your thoughts and become aware of your mindset.
Understand your emotions
- What am I thinking?
- What am I feeling?
- What am I doing?
Develop a sense of gratitude for what you have in life.
Take productive and proactive action in moving your mindset out of the negative mode.
Do not hesitate to seek help if required.