The Power of “If”: Why Do We Have Regrets?

“If” can be a dangerous word.

When we use it looking forward, it’s about risks, possibilities, and potential. We may wonder what life would look like if we moved to the city, or if we take that trip, or if we ask out that person. Thinking about what could be is how we make the decisions that impact our lives. Using “if” when thinking about the future is hopeful and sometimes terrifying. It can be anxiety inducing to consider all the implications, but implies growth and forward momentum.

“If” becomes dangerous when looking backwards.

When looking to the past, “if” is often about regret and lost opportunities. It’s used to mourn the choices we’ve made, or the chances we didn’t take. In these cases we may wonder what would have happened if you didn’t break up with your lover, or if you didn’t took that job, or if you hadn’t missed that plane. Sometimes we use it to consider funny or implausible scenarios. Sometimes we use it to congratulate ourselves on the mistakes we didn’t take, but if we are honest- that’s not usually the case. Using “if” while looking backwards is often sorrowful. It implies loss and regression.

There are 3 main types of regretful “Ifs”.

Sometimes they are tied to incidental, split-second occurrences: “if I didn’t sleep through that alarm before the big interview”, “If I hit the breaks a milisecond sooner”, or “If I hadn’t lost that key.” These aren’t always mistakes so much as they are accidents. The second type are heat-of-the-moment mistakes: “If I hadn’t said that when we were fighting”, “If I had looked closer before throwing out that important piece of mail”, or “If I had left the house 10 minutes earlier”. These are often thoughtless, choices that seem small in the moment but can have rippling effects. Finally, there are the big ones. The choices we consciously make, and even agonize over. These are the big, life-altering decisions: “If I had married that person”, “If I had applied for that job”, or “If I never met that person”. These are the sort of choices entire alternate-reality sitcom episodes are based on. But what purpose do they serve?

Why do have regrets?

There is no rewind button for reality. We can’t unmake those choices or undo the harm we’ve caused. Even if we could, would it do any good? Depending on your views on fate and destiny, you may find that your circumstances wouldn’t change. Perhaps what is was always meant to be. Maybe you do manage to change the past, only to find the future becomes worse, or a new kind of regretful. Or, you may find that your dissatisfaction wasn’t linked to your past actions at all. And even if you can change the past, and it does work out the way we hope, would it erase our memories? Would we still have that lingering guilt, trauma, or pain? Would we end up regretting the new change? I guess it doesn’t matter, since we can’t test the theory.

We can only remember and reflect.

As the great Rafiki from Disney’s Lion King so aptly said: “The past hurts. You can either run from it, or learn from it.” While Rafiki leaves out the option of attempting to live in the past, he goes cover the other options. While this platitude is generally good advice, it’s easier said than done. The harsh truth is that sometimes there’s nothing to learn. Sometimes the thing we regret was out of our control. Sometimes we made the best choice we had in the moment. Other times it wasn’t a mistake, just a different path. What can you learn from that?

Not everything is a learning experience.

The universe isn’t a gentle teacher who guides and nurtures you through life’s ups and downs. Everything may happen for a reason, but sometimes that reason is just “because”. Wondering “what if” is part of living. We make dozens of choices throughout the course of a day, and thousands of choices throughout a lifetime. We can’t always make the “right” ones. We are bound to have regrets in life. If we are lucky, we can learn from them. If we are even luckier, we may be able to correct them down the road by making amends or trying again. But, sometimes a “what if” or “could have, should have” is just that. All we can do is speculate, then let it go.

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