Your memories about what you missed doing in your life may billow with regrets. Recollections of omissions can feel especially painful when they come about because you were afraid to fail, feared criticism, dreaded facing uncertainty, or felt immobilized by the discomfort you anticipated in meeting a challenge. They may also come about from procrastination.
Omissions invite the might-have-been syndrome. Let’s suppose you lament what you could have done but didn’t. If you didn’t goof off in school, you could be a famous doctor. You may question one choice over another. “If I had married my high school sweetheart (If I didn’t marry my high school sweetheart), would I have a fulfilling life?”
Monday morning quarterbacking is normal. Depending on where you go with this analysis, you can learn or lament. To learn, think about how you might benefit from omissions, and you may develop insights into how to put your present moments to enlightened use. You can lament about what you missed because of apprehension and procrastination. You may soon find yourself procrastinating even more on making a productive and enjoyable life for yourself.
It’s a normal human tendency to want closure. A might have been syndrome may partially help close the loop. However, like a red-lettered word in a list of words with black letters, omissions may stand out and haunt your memory. By ruminating about what might have been, you may lose sight of what you can do now.
The procrastination backward thinking trap comes about when your look back over your life and set contingencies for going forward. In one variation, you wait until you have deep insights into your motivations before you can change. Dwelling on regrets is another procrastination backward thinking trap. In cogitating about what you missed, you may delay decisions about what you can do to make your life better in the present moment.
The Parable of a Bunny and a Time Thief
Recurring anxieties and fears can feel like walls on each side of a trail painted with murals of regrets.
Here is a way to create new pictures. I’ll tell a story of regrets. You rewrite the story to take advantage of what you learned from your regrets that can lead to memories that you’d like to include in a future autobiography.
As you walk along a woodland trail, you see a bunny running toward you with a fox close on its trail. You courageously sweep the little creature behind you. Startled, the fox turns and runs away.
A relieved and grateful rabbit tells you that it has the power to grant you one wish for saving its life. You think for a moment. You say, “Grant me the power to relive lost moments. There were precious times in my life when I lost an opportunity that I now wish to experience."
The rabbit replies, "I will grant you this wish. However, beware. The gift of revising regrets in your mind is not what you hope it will be." You insist. The little bunny gives you what you ask.
You feel joy in this newfound power. First, you create a moment when you felt too frightened to love a person you yearned for, and now you feel courageous and declarative. As you lose yourself in the ecstasy of love, you wish the moment would last forever. However, it vanishes like a bird once seen on a branch.
You recapture many moments of what might have been. At first, you feel a glow of excitement. Then your fleeting fantasies vanish into darkness. Meanwhile, your present life remains the same. Indeed, as you go back to relive precious lost moments, you pay a price: You erase the time that you have to experience changing your life in the present moment.
The rabbit was right. Your wish resulted in unintended consequences. You have a new idea of what this phrase means: “be careful what you wish for.”
To break the pattern you look for the magical rabbit. Sadly, that is not to be. The rabbit disappeared. The magic is gone.
Many people look back over their lives with regret. By fantasizing about reversing lost opportunities, they trap themselves in an unsatisfying present. By looking to the future with apprehension, they trap themselves in a present life that they find unpleasant.
If you focus too much on the omissions in your life, you'll draw time and energy from present efforts that can lead to a productive future. In this world of regrets, your anxieties and fears go under cover as procrastination narrows the path that you follow and paints murals of what might have been on the artificial walls that contain you.
When it comes to your life, you are the scriptwriter. True, you’ll have some unpleasant surprises that are not something you would script. You’ll be influenced by overly restrictive conventions. Sure, there will be serendipity. Nevertheless, in your role as the scriptwriter, consider what makes a good life that you can accomplish? Is it possible to turn what you learned from examining your main regrets, into meaningful accomplishments? For example, if you act timidly, can you learn to act slightly more assertively?
Here’s a bonus thought to put the might have been syndrome into a different perspective.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
(Robert Frost: Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening)
I adopted the parable of the bunny and the time thief from Change Your Life Now. Among the books I wrote, I like this one the best.
For more guidance on having fewer omissions and regrets in your life, click End Procrastination Now
For more guidance on how successfully to combat anxiety, click on: The Cognitive Behavioral Workbook for Anxiety (Second Edition)
© Dr. Bill Knaus
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