This has been an impressively odd 365 days. For anyone living, they’re unprecedented. They’re without any sort of comparison point to draw conclusions or use as a way to predict what’s coming next. Even the experts among us have no fucking clue what’s going on. With all that said, it gets really easy to play the “What If” game, which is one Hell of a trap.
The “What If” Game: An Introduction
The “What If” game is one of my favorite anxiety-related pastimes. Basically, I sit in a room and I wonder what would have happened if I’d made different decisions. What if I’d never left my home in the Ozarks and moved to Texas? What if I’d run off the UK to meet my cousins when I was a teenager? What if I’d gone to a different college? You get the point. There are so many things you can do this with.
In short, it’s a really deliciously tempting way to torture the fuck out of yourself. It can even come in much less dramatic packages, like “What if I’d started working a bit earlier today?” What if? WHAT IF YOU HAD?
You’ll know you’re playing the “What If” game if you’re ruminating over things that you literally can’t change. You’re playing at a pro level if you’re ruminating over things literally NO ONE could have changed.
Gold star to you, my friend.
Why We Play
The “What If” game is simple. It’s easy. It’s a way to look at those things we regret and try to magically wish a different choice into existence. But it can also be about anxiety due to our current surroundings. I’m seeing a lot of people playing it these days, more than usual. And the whole world is on fire, so it’s understandable. Which is why I’m writing this damn blog to begin with.
The “What If” game is all your hopes and dreams and fears and regrets bundled up in one single, heart-wrenching exercise. “What If” is hard. It’s one of the hardest things, whether we recognize it or not. Sometimes it feels like a bit of an innocent exercise. “What If” I’d gone to prom with this one instead of that one? It’s an innocent question, but the implications are actually enormous, especially when you’re 20+ years beyond the Junior Prom.
We play it for wish fulfillment, but in a way that’s really not healthy. You can’t undo those decisions you’ve made, no matter how much you may want to. You can only move forward and, if by some incredible stroke of luck that fella you wish you’d have taken to the prom happens to be single and receptive, well, maybe you get another chance. But you don’t get to erase the rest. It’s still there. It’s still part of your story. The past didn’t change, only the future is affected… like regular time stuff.
Disrupting the “What If” Game
The healthiest thing you can do when the “What If” game starts playing on autopilot is to disrupt it. I mean, just catch that shit on fire and throw it out the door to smolder in the yard like some kind of demonic kitchen experiment. There are a lot of mental tricks I use for this, none work all the time, and the “What Ifs” that are the nearest and dearest to my heart are always the hardest to overcome. Those Big Regrets (™) are the worst. They’ll cripple the strongest man.
But, here are some things you can try.
Think about puppies. Really, think about anything pleasant. When I’m in an MRI, I think about bunnies in a lavender meadow with a big white-capped mountain in the distance. Pour all your focus into that shape, fill in all the details, give it depth and breadth to the point that there’s nothing left for “What If.”
Phone a friend. Look, we all play the “What If” game, even if your buddies are too afraid to admit it. These are times when we need to lean into each other and lay it all bare. One of my “What Ifs” is about my son, who died in utero in my 20s. I never really talk about it openly, but it haunts me. What if he’d lived? He’d be a teenager now. But he didn’t, so sometimes I have to take that raw emotion to my good pals and ask for their help carrying it away. It’s not about forgetting. It’s about being unable to change the past and accepting that over and over.
Do something highly engaging. What’s engaging is going to vary based on your interests, but if you can find something that’s engrossing and will fill up all your thoughts, you’ll find that “What If” floating away from you. Before you know it, you’ll have forgotten you even asked the question of yourself. You’ll just be so busy knitting a sweater or running a mile or digging a hole in your garden for… reasons… that it’ll move along.
Act on it. Oh, woah. Who put that here? Musta been me. Sometimes those “What Ifs” are regrets. And sometimes it’s ok to act on regrets. You can’t fix them, as such, but you can do what you can to make amends. You can call the kid you bullied in school and apologize. You can buy a plane ticket to Aruba (well, at some point you can) and make that decision right this time.
You can sometimes do something to change your “What If” point. What if you had gone to school to be a doctor? Go enroll in night school and get started. What if you’d bought a red car instead of a blue one? Trade that bastard in. Sometimes actions are cathartic. Sometimes they let us shed regrets by shining lights on the choices we didn’t make so we understand the choices we did make better.
No One Wins the “What If” Game
Nobody wins at the “What If” game. You can use it as a motivator to accomplish things you wish you would have done, but you can’t change a lot of the things that people “What If” about. For me, it’s more of an exercise in accepting where I am in life and, when I can, looking at ways to move from that spot to the spot where I think I’d rather be, in a realistic and healthy fashion.
Just, whatever you choose to do with it, don’t dwell in that headspace. It’s a terrible, soul-sucking part of the world. It’ll take everything from you if you linger. Choose an action and move forward. Ignore it and continue on your path. Either answer is the right answer. There’s no “What Ifs” when handling the “What If” game.