Have you ever been in that meeting where things goes awry and you immediately feel your stomach tie up in knots? You can tell something is wrong--maybe what you said or didn't say, or did or didn't do. Then it just gets worse as you spend more time thinking about what happened--or what everyone else might be thinking--instead of the agenda.

Later, as you reflect on the event in agonizing detail, the regrets creep in as you undo and redo everything down to the minutiae ... thinking of how it might have been different:

  • If only I had spent more time researching, the report would have been better.
  • I can't believe I didn't have an answer to that question. She must think I'm an idiot!
  • What if I hadn't rushed in at the last minute? Were we doomed from the start?

We all "what if" and "if only" all the time, often without even realizing it. But have you ever stopped to think about your what ifs? How to catalog and classify them? How they are serving or disserving you?

Counterfactual thinking--a fancy term for "what if"

Unless you are an academic in the social sciences, you probably answered no to those questions, because for most people what ifs are just something you do. Psychologists and other social scientists call this phenomenon counterfactual thinking, and there are actually many ways to break down what ifs. For example:

  • Are they upward ("If I had researched more, I would have been able to answer the question") or downward ("What if I had gone out last night like I planned? I would have done even worse!")
  • They can focus on you ("Why didn't I study more in school? I could have gotten that promotion") or on someone else ("Of course they chose Dave. He went to Harvard").
  • They can also be an omission (in which you wish you had acted) or a commission (in which you wish you had not acted). 

The one thing all counterfactual thoughts have in common is they are forms of mentally undoing: playing an event over and over in your mind and considering what could have been "if only" this or that had gone differently. 

Undoing events too much causes distress

A study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin looked to see what features of counterfactual thinking were significantly linked to increased distress. It turns out the type (upward, downward, omission, commission) didn't matter. Recency and frequency of counterfactual thoughts were the only things linked to increased distress. The good news is, even if someone had a lot of counterfactual thoughts previously, once they were gone, so was the increased distress level.

If you let it, your brain will relive that mishandled meeting with your boss for eternity, but at some point it does much more harm than good. Fortunately, there is a very simple solution.

Say these three words to break the cycle and achieve your goals

It turns out that one simple phrase can make the difference between a lifetime of dwelling and one in which you use counterfactuals for their intended use: behavior modification. 

You see, counterfactual thoughts are actually a good thing. In moderation, they help us see where we have gone wrong and learn from our actions to do better next time. The problem is, too many of us get stuck in mentally undoing an event. 

All you have to do to break this cycle is say, "Next time, I'll ... "

Yes, it is incredibly simple (which is great news!), but it can change everything. Let's revisit some of those statements from earlier with those words: 

  • If only I had spent more time researching, the report would have been better. Next time, I'll set aside four hours the day before to make sure I do enough. 
  • I can't believe I didn't have an answer to that question. She must think I'm an idiot! Next time, I'll say I can look it up and get back with an answer after the meeting.
  • What if I hadn't rushed in at the last minute? Were we doomed from the start? Next time, I'll schedule 15 minutes before this meeting starts to ensure I'm not rushed. 

Those three simple words move you out of the negative and into the opportunity. It's OK to what-if, but don't let it take over your life. Even if you know you're the type of person who does this excessively (as a recovering perfectionist, I've done more than my fair share), don't fret. It's never too late to shift and relieve your mental distress. 

Next time, you'll know just what to do.