You may have already guessed from past posts that I am a Marvel comic fan. A few years ago, they released an animated series that caught my imagination called “What If….?” The child you all know I am thought this was fantastic 😊. Just like the name suggests, the series considers what could have been if events and the facts surrounding them were different. The first episode considers what if Captain America was really a woman- Peggy Carter, instead of Steve Rogers? In another episode, the Avengers never formed because of a slightly different series of events. Small differences can have big impacts. Enough of that, no spoiler alerts here! But it’s hard to watch these episodes and not wonder about my real life “what ifs”, and once I start doing that, it’s hard to stop.
Sometimes our real life “what ifs” can cause us to spiral into constant replay of events, obsessing over what we could have done differently for a better outcome. There is a physiological term for this; it’s called counterfactual thinking and is defined as “the human tendency to create possible alternatives to life events that already occurred; something that is contrary to what actually happened.” Believe it or not, as painful as it can be for us—counterfactual thinking is viewed as a very sophisticated cognitive achievement. It’s an indicator of our emotional maturity, if we can keep it under control, something we all struggle with at times. Consider how often you may replay events when things didn’t go your way, wondering what you could have done differently to change that outcome. What if during a job interview, I had said this differently, would I have gotten the job? Should I have negotiated for a bigger raise? The cycle can be endless, hard to break out of, and makes us miserable!
A while ago, I wrote about how Olympic bronze medal winners are usually happier with their outcomes than their silver medal counterparts, and it’s exactly because of the mental game of “what if…”? I think there are benefits to counterfactual thinking if we do it differently. Instead of obsessing about what went wrong and beating ourselves up on what we could have done differently, why not take a different approach? What if we thought about what we learned from the experience and how we will use those learnings in the future? Instead of dwelling on what we can’t change, why not focus on what we can change—our future actions and selves?
Let’s take our “what if…?”, learn from them and turn it to the advantage of our future selves. Now that would truly give us superpowers!
“The what-if’s and the should-have’s will eat your brain.” – John O’Callaghan
Have a great weekend.