What to do when “what ifs” come knocking

The game of “What if” is one we all learn to play as children. I don’t think it’s taught to us so much as picked up, but if you spend enough time around a kid, you will inevitably hear them turning over possibilities in their heads—imagining what their life would be like, if … fill in the blank.

This game is fun when we are young because the options are endless. We focus our “what if’s” on the future—a future that is wide open and largely unhindered by negative experiences, fear of failure, or doubt in our own abilities.

What if become a teacher? An astronaut? A writer? A dolphin trainer?  What if I move to another state –or country? Maybe I’ll live on a farm and own horses. Or, I’ll discover that I have a hidden talent for singing and dancing and then, I’ll become famous!  

One of the best things about the childhood “what if” game is that it’s malleable. If I wake up tomorrow and no longer want to live on a farm with horses, all I need to do is pick a new “what if.”

I think imaginative games like this are not just part of growing up, but they are key to understanding who we are and deciding what we want to be in the world.  As kids, and even young adults, the game of “What if” helps us explore our options and chart a course for ourselves.

Then, as we get older, an interesting thing happens: Often, our games of “What if” stop being about a future full of possibility. Unknowingly, we keep playing “What If,” but instead of asking “what could happen?” we often ask, “what could have happened?” In other words, we start focusing on the past.

What if I had traveled after graduating? What if I’d had more courage in high school? Or been less afraid of failure in college? What if I hadn’t met that person whose influence negatively impacted the course of my life? What if I’d set better boundaries in my early relationships? What if I’d made different choices with money in my twenties or thirties? What COVID had never caused global shutdowns ?

Similar to the game we played as kids, the questions—the “what if” scenarios—for this adult version of a timeless game are innumerable.

Quite awhile back, I caught myself playing a game “what if” with my past. I was sitting by the window on a quiet Saturday trying to read a book, but I couldn’t focus. Instead, I kept thinking about relationships. I thought about friends and family and other acquaintances. Basically, interactions with humanity in general, and all the ways I feel I’ve really messed up the important ones.

There are a lot of “what if’s” for my mind to play with here. Both things I wish I’d done, and things I wish I’d avoided. People I wish I’d held onto and some I wish I’d let go much more quickly.

On this day though, my mind was preoccupied with one person in particular. One person who, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, I can’t seem to shake from my psyche. So naturally, I started wondering, “what if?” What if things had gone differently? What if I’d been more confident; more in tune; more capable of asking the right questions? Who would I be? Would anything be different? Would my life somehow be better?

I caught myself pretty fast because this is a dangerous game. The scenarios we come up with when playing “what if” with our past are almost always hyper positive. Things go well—exactly how we would want them to—and it results in a better imagined present than the one we see in front of us when the game ends.

Here’s the other thing that makes this game dangerous: shame and regret will join you every time, and trust me, they’ll keep you playing much longer than you want to.

That said, if your past comes knocking and asks you to play this game, I’m not suggesting you ignore it entirely. There’s a reason it came knocking. It’s trying to tell you something. Even better, it’s giving you an opportunity.

For me, when I start hearing “what ifs” like the ones that came to me on that quiet Saturday, I know my subconscious is trying to process something in my present. Something that I wish were different or haven’t yet come to terms with.

To be upset with myself for decisions that I can’t change isn’t helpful. Nor is it an effective way to practice loving myself. What can be helpful though, is using what my past is telling me to play an imaginative game of “what if” with my future.

Here’s what I mean: the games of imaginative possibilities that we learned as children don’t need to stop once we’ve grown up. Rather, they can become more refined—more specific. I’ve learned enough about myself to know that I don’t have an undiscovered talent for singing or dancing. And that I would hate being an astronaut. I can still entertain big, bold “what if’s” for myself, but I know enough to keep those specific ones off the table.

My past comes knocking to give me clues for what to imagine for my future. In the instance I shared here, it was telling me that I was lonely. It was reminding me of how much I’ve learned about relationships—even if I learned some of those things through failure. And it was very subtly giving me an opportunity to change things. 

It’s so subtle that if I’m not careful, I’ll miss it. I’ll focus on the past so much that it robs me of my future. I mentioned earlier that shame and regret come to play these games with us. Their goal is to keep us stuck. To keep us spiraling with thoughts of what could have been so that we never ask, “what can be?”

The truth is that no matter how old you are, you can shift your reality. You can change whatever is left of your future. It starts with imagination. If we want something different for our lives, we first need to be able and willing to imagine it—very much like we did when we were five, eight, ten-years old, just a little more refined and specific to who we know we are*.

Since that Saturday quite awhile back, I’ve working to pursue new friendships. And because I’ve learned things about myself in past 30 plus years, I’m able to take an approach that makes sense for who I am. Even more, I’m able to draw from my past and better define what I want my relationships to be—and what I want them not to be.

In relationships, and several other areas, I’m using my imagination to ask, “what if?” And I’m using those “what if’s” to build something new. I’m listening to the past as it comes knocking. I’m looking at the friendship that my psyche can’t shake in order to ask what was so good about it—to imagine myself building something with those good qualities again, while refining what went wrong to not repeat the same mistakes.

It sounds simple in writing and yet, I think we often forget. We forget that our past is here to teach us, and that regret can become an ally.

If you’re having hard time with this idea; if it’s difficult to imagine any future at all or you feel like your imagination is dead, please read the note below about survival mode. It’s important that we are kind and patient with ourselves in this process.

To all of us: As we enter a new year, may we not be too old to ask ourselves, “what if?” And may we begin to define our dreams and then work to see them become reality.

*Keep in mind that understanding our limitations does not mean that we stop dreaming big dreams. Often, what we call limitations are really things we’ve self-imposed out of fear or things that have been projected onto us by the limiting beliefs of others. When playing games of “What If,” it’s important to understand the difference between real and perceived limitations.

Survival mode

For reasons I won’t go into here, I spent the better part of the past decade in survival mode, sometimes only capable of taking life literally one minute at a time. And here’s the thing about survival mode: It can diminish our capacity to look at the future, and sometimes, even the past. When we are in survival mode, we can often only focus on the present, and questions of “what if” are replaced by “how?”

How will I get through today? How can I avoid a breakdown? How should I respond if X happens? How can I minimize the impact of Y? (Insert your own “how” here; survival questions are usually very personal and specific.)

Because I spent so long in survival mode, I wanted to share something with anyone reading this who may be there right now, for any reason: Be kind to yourself. If you can’t look past today, it’s okay. It if was work just to get up and believe you’d make through today, it’s okay. In fact, it’s more than okay. It’s right where you need to be.

You are making progress, even when it doesn’t feel like it. If the idea of imagining a better future feels out of reach, or it seems like your imagination has completely dried up, please hear me when I say that survival takes imagination. You’re using it everyday. If you’re surviving, then for today, your imaginative energy was focused right where it needed to be. It might sound cheesy, but I’d encourage you to look in the mirror at the end of each day and thank yourself for this. Thank yourself for getting through the day; thank your imagination for showing up for you in exactly the places you needed it to.

And if you can find even one small, positive, future-focused “what if” that’s in reach, grab it and hold on tight. Even if it feels tiny or insignificant, it’s those little “what if’s,” those small promises, that can help you bust—or even crawl—out of survival mode.

Also, I would encourage you to not focus on the past right now. While we can learn from our past, and it is there to helps us, I believe that looking at it while we are in survival mode should only be done with a therapist or healthy support system. Shame and regret love survival mode and they’d love to keep you stuck there.

You won’t be in survival mode forever. The fact that you’ve read this far, demonstrates that you’ve a desire for more. That alone may be your “what if” to hold onto.

If you want to talk with someone whose been in survival mode—someone who thought they’d be there forever, please feel free to message me. I haven’t figured it all out by any means. Some days still, it’s all I can do to avoid a breakdown. If I have learned one thing though, it’s that we shouldn’t do this alone. So, if you need someone to listen, I’m here. Know I‘m rooting for you and there’s someone in your corner. 

   Photo by Josh Hild on Unsplash