We make wishes all the time: at 11:11, when we blow out our birthday candles, when we find a fallen eyelash, when we throw a coin into a well. It is part of human nature. Wishes can be wonderfully optimistic, but they can also be reflections of disappointment or regret about the past rather than optimism about the future. They are wishes such as “If only I had known…” or “If only I had or had not…” or “I wish I could have done things differently”. These are wishes that keep us anchored to unpleasant experiences, rather than inspire a future propelled by what our experiences have taught us. In other words, when we wish that we could have done things differently, our focus is on what we have already done rather than on what we will do going forward.
We’ve all said some variation of “if only”. For example:
(1) “If only I had known how angry she would get, I would not have mentioned ____ today. I would have waited until she was in a better mood.”
(2) “If only I had known he was cheating on me, I would have broken up with him months ago.”
(3) “If only I had not gone to bed so late, I would have been able to do better on the test/job I was assigned.”
(4) “If only I had been more attentive, she would still be dating me.”
(5) “If only I had known that the company was going to go out of business I would have started looking for work months ago.”
(6) “If I had known that today was the last time I would see him, I would have said I loved him when he left for work. I wish that had been the last thing I said.”
In these “if only” scenarios, we tend to use information that was not available at the time we made our decision. This newly available information suddenly becomes a basis for evaluating the merits of our past decision.
However, we cannot lose sight of the fact that our decisions in the moment are based on how one sees the situation at that time. Why avoid mentioning something if you think the person is in a good mood? If you trust someone, why break up with him/her? If you think the next day will be routine, what is the harm in staying up late? If you think you are making someone happy, why change the way you treat them? If you are happy in your job and have no information on the financial position of the company, why change jobs? Did the person know you love them, even though the words were not spoken that morning?
It is often hard to remember the factors that influenced our decision at the time and the consequences of our decisions are sometimes so upsetting to us that we search for how we could have avoided them. It is as if the newly available information is so compelling that it “demands” that we use it as a way of evaluating the merits of our past actions. It is almost as if we get stuck in the wish that things could have been different and in searching for a way to change the past, we wind up turning our back on our future.
I have talked to so many people who ask over and over why they have done something. Why was I so quiet/talkative/sensitive/insensitive/pushy/obedient? These statements are really all variations of “I wish I were different” and the ultimate quest is to find the reason for one’s behavior, the one thing that could have changed it all. While it is important to reflect upon our past actions and learn from those actions, wishing we could change the past does little to foster that learning.
When the statements we make move from the past (“I wish I were”) to the future (“I want to be”), the potential for learning from the past is increased and the potential for change in the future is enhanced.
It seems to me that in order to truly learn from the past, and move on from it, we need to focus on the evidence we collected at the time. Asking ourselves why we behaved a certain way (rather than wishing we had behaved differently) allows us to carefully examine that evidence and determine what we may have overemphasized and what we may have overlooked. Most of the time, we seek confirming evidence, that is, evidence that supports our hypothesis. If we love someone, we look for evidence of their goodness; if we dislike someone, we look for evidence of their meanness. In doing so, we emphasize the evidence that supports or confirms our view. This is a valuable and important part of decision-making and evidence collection. However, if we overemphasize the confirming evidence, we may fail to consider evidence that disconfirms our view. A parent may say, for example, “My kids are great!”. They then seek and find confirming evidence (good grades, politeness) but overlook disconfirming evidence (they are in their room studying and cutting themselves because they are depressed or anxious).
The collection of confirming and disconfirming evidence is important to effective decision-making but to truly learn from the past, the other question we must ask ourselves is “How do I want to behave next time?” This clearly shifts the focus from the past –which we cannot change – to the future, where we can change how we behave. Wishing we could have been more attentive will not bring back the person we were dating; however, being more attentive to those who are in our lives or who will come into our lives can enrich our relationships going forward. Saying, “If only I had known he was cheating on me, I would have broken up with him months ago” does not help one move forward; it keeps one focused on the pain of the past and the uncertainty of the future. This particular statement also points to the inherent irrationality of using today’s information for yesterday’s decision. That is, at the moment, the relationship was good so there was no reason to break up. If one had had the information, then – and only then – does breaking up begin to make sense. Again, reviewing the confirming and disconfirming evidence one used as a basis for trust is useful; focusing our energy on wishing we had done things differently does little to help one learn from the past and does even less to help one move toward a brighter future.
My wish for you is that you make your wishes dreams that can come true, and not lists of past regrets that cannot be changed.
“Do you know why a car’s windshield is so large and the rear view mirror is so small? Because our past is not as important as our future. So, look ahead and move on.” – Unknown
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