Overcoming the Cycle of What-if

We’re all prone to thinking “what if” when something doesn’t work out, but it’s important to go easy on ourselves because we’re doing the best we can.

Feb 23, 2023

Overcoming the Cycle of What-if

It’s easy to fall into a cycle of wishfulness. I find myself stuck thinking about all the things I wish I would’ve done: start investing when I was 20, exercise consistently (at some point I gained like 30 lbs.), never start drinking, value the time I had with my dad. All of these what-ifs, these hypothetical paths dangling just slightly out of reach, often lead me down a poisonous cycle of anxiety, guilt, and regret. The speculation of what-if can also lead to a feeling of dissatisfaction and getting lost on the idea of what could’ve been.

This type of thinking, the “what-ifism,” is called “counterfactual thinking.” Some psychologists believe that counterfactual thinking can actually lead to resilience. When we imagine the ways a situation could’ve been worse, for example, counterfactual thinking helps instill positive emotions like relief and gratitude because at least you didn’t break your leg or, god forbid, die. In turn, the sense of relief and gratitude stemming from what-could’ve-been-but-wasn’t helps increase our ability to withstand, recover, and overcome hardship and tragedy.

In moments where we don’t get a choice to choose our actions, however, the sense of regret increases since “we almost always overestimate the good things that would’ve come from it.” Counterfactual thinking is a coping mechanism to help us withstand tragedy, but it can also promote regret. Regret for what could’ve been, a longing for the other world a slight shift in our decision would’ve led us. One of my favorite theories of physics is the Many-Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. Even though this theory theorizes about the new worlds created after quantum events, I like to imagine a version of myself making each possible choice, miniscule quantum events leading to the creation of many other realities. Small moments where reality disentangles and reforms itself anew. Another example of counterfactual thinking that brings me a sense of peace because somewhere I made the right choice even if it wasn’t in this life.

Perhaps it all comes down to accepting and appreciating the present. There will always be something I should’ve done, but all I have is what I chose to do. My grandma said during our last visit, “I’m glad I didn’t sell my house. Where would I have gone? I think you end up where you need to be.” Whether this is a simple truth or a way to cope with the reality we can’t change our past, it’s comforting to believe I’ll end up in a good place despite hardships and uncertainty. We’re cursed to walk, run, jump into the dark room of the future hoping we land on our feet. The only thing I can do is make the best choice I know how to in the moment, intent on setting my future selves up for success. Later, it’s easier to go easy on myself when I make the wrong choice, which is bound to happen. 

Ultimately, it’s important for me to think, “I’m where I need to be.” Yes, I wish I did things sooner or different. I wish I started investing when I was 20. I wish I didn’t “let myself go.” I wish I stayed away from drinking. I wish I valued the time I had with my dad more. I wish. I wish. I wish. But, I’m going to give myself the grace that I did the best I could, and from now on I’ll do better.