It’s an annoying, and uniquely human, quirk of our neuropsychology that we spend so much time thinking about what we’d like to do over.
Animals, which presumably lack our level of conscious awareness, or at least our level of conscious self-awareness, don’t seem to have this problem.
When something doesn’t go as planned, you rarely see your dog or cat berating themselves, fantasizing about doing something over, obsessing over that one special, specific point where it all went wrong, plotting retrospectively about how they’d do it differently if given the chance.
Yet we humans do that all the time. We’re blessed with a level of neurodevelopment that makes us conscious of ourselves, and aware of the past and the future as concepts. So naturally we humans regularly use our big, overdeveloped brains to replaying the past, or hypothetically constructing the future.
This isn’t always bad, mind you. There’s a lot to be said for remembering the past. In fact, I highly encourage my patients to remember some parts of the past, particularly moments when they felt powerful, capable, and clear-headed. Reliving those times can put us in incredibly powerful states of mind.
Likewise, imagining the future isn’t necessarily bad, either. Particularly when we’ve hit a rough spot in our current lives, fast forwarding in our heads to a more pleasant time to come is often how we make it through. I use this technique while running— often times, running up a hill is no fun, but you can do it if you stay focused on how nice it’ll feel to run down the hill and finish the race.
Imagination can be a powerful tool. So why is it we humans insist so often on using that tool to tear down our confidence and self-esteem, rather than building it up?
Imagining “do-overs,” as I call them, is particularly dangerous. That is, using your gift of imagination to go over something that hasn’t gone well in your life, and for which you blame yourself. We’ve all done this— imagined what we would “do over” if we had the opportunity. It’s an almost irresistible impulse to do this.
Unfortunately, it’s also a particularly fraught impulse to compulsively imagine “do-over” scenarios. Because, no matter how vividly we imagine doing something over differently? We can’t.
“But Doc,” you might say, “By imagining what I might have done differently the last time, I might figure out what to do next time! I might learn something by examining my mistakes!”
Yes, it’s true that, as the famous quote instructs us, “those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat history.” I would never tell anyone to not take what lessons they could from how things went in the past. Examining our failures in particular can provide important insights into how we function, how we work under pressure, how we respond when things go haywire.
But there comes a point where obsessively reflecting on the past, and imagining a different outcome, can consume us. There’s a point at which it becomes a literal waste of energy, insofar as no amount of energy directed toward a fantasized “do-over” will bring that exact opportunity back around again.
No matter how much we wish, no matter how much we want, no matter how much we pray, we can’t go back and have a better past.
What we can do, though, is the next right thing.
The next constructive thing. The next thing that, having examined our past with compassion and realism, we’ve determined will be beneficial to our goals.
Both successes and failures use their imaginations to envision the future and relive the past. The difference is that successful people do so with the explicit purpose of enhancing the present moment. They resist the urge to get lost in either what happened last, or what will happen next.
Developing high-self esteem demands us to live neither in the past or the future. Our self-appraisal will notice if we’re trying to escape the present moment, and it’ll want to know why.
How are you using your imagination? Are you trying to go back and do the right thing in a past moment?
Take a deep breath.
And do the next right thing.