‘I should have …’
‘I should never have …’
‘I really wish I had …’
‘I wish I hadn’t …’
We can all get so lost in trying to change the past. We know it’s impossible, yet regret hooks us, keeps us hooked and causes no end of pain. I speak from tortuous experience — for many years, my first thought as I woke up each morning was ‘if only ...’
But what are these thoughts that churn our minds, taking us back into the past and telling us how we should have been so much better/smarter/nicer than we were. The story they tell us feels like an indisputable fact: you absolutely should have or should not have done whatever you did, not if you want to have a rewarding, pleasurable life — or even just a functional one — now and in the future.
The experience of ‘I should have …’
Let’s dissect ‘I should (never) have’, ‘I wish I had(n’t)’ and ‘If only …’ (aka FOMO)
- You see a trigger, the thing you would have got if you had done the thing you are now regretting not doing. In my case, I saw that the Japanese stock market was at a 29 year high. I used to have an investment in it, but I sold it years ago for zero profit.
Your trigger could be a relationship you damaged, seeing someone with a job that you should have got, bad financial decision, or even missing out on great party. It’s anything that reminds you of something you did, at some point in the past, that you now wish you hadn’t.
- Your body and mind creates pictures, sounds and sensations.
Mental images appear of the people who do have the thing and are enjoying it while you miss out — so you suffer the pain of lack.
You see a memory of the moment when you made the fateful decision, with pictures and thoughts of ‘I was so stupid — how could I not have known better?
There might be a contraction in your body as you brace yourself against these painful thoughts. Now you are suffering the pain of self-betrayal and self-denigration.
In response, you might get into some denial with thoughts like ‘maybe it’s not really that good’ or ‘maybe not doing it makes me superior” and with these strategies you will suffer the pain of separation and repression. In my example above it’s ‘I hate the f’ing stock market! It’s all rigged anyway.’
- And then there may be a ‘demand for future change’. You will tell yourself that you must do better next time so that this pain can be avoided. You get to work on plans to improve yourself and decision-making capabilities. Good luck.
When I saw that headline, I felt sick, my stomach tightened, my heart sank and I felt stupid, inadequate and terrified of the future.
As we take a closer look at ‘I should (never) have …’ at what it truly is, now, in this moment, we find that it’s a collection of images, sensations and sounds. These come together to give us the experience we call ‘regret’ or something similar.
‘I should (never) have…’ is not a fact, it’s a feeling.
Why does this matter? Because feelings can be released — and that means that you can free yourself of the bind of the past.
Once you’re triggered into regret, the thought strategies described above will quickly grab your attention and hold on tight. You’ll be baffled why this feels so stuck when all you want to get rid of the feelings and get over it.
Trying to explain, avoid and deny makes the pain worse. We usually have a very sticky favorite, e.g. ‘how could I be such an idiot?’ or ‘that is so outrageous, the world is so wrong! It’s against me! There’s no hope!’. Our mind will likely keep switching strategies and adding more into the mix, always one step ahead and thoroughly convincing in its presentation of feelings as facts. This is painful and achieves nothing, so why can’t we just stop thinking those thoughts?
Because your mind is in control and that means it will do what it does best.
And that is:
- To believe in the personal ‘I’.
- To keep bod and mind alive.
- To maintain the status quo.
- Take new, unknown courses of action (yes, I know it likes to play with ideas and dream about doing these things — actually doing them is another matter).
- Encourage new and independent thought (see above — the same applies)
- Accept that the present is all there is and the past is its own creation.
- Question the sense of a separate, narrative self.
In short, you mind will be very busy, but it won’t be easing the pain.
Pain can only be released now, right now, in this moment, it can’t be released later on or tomorrow. If you have a physical pain, a toothache perhaps, you would probably promise yourself you’ll look after your teeth better in future. But that won’t relieve the pain you feel now.
Our attention goes to what we perceive as the source of the pain. And in the case of ‘I should have …’ it’s the past that seems to be causing the problem, so that’s where our attention goes. But in doing this, we’re not only attempting the impossible (rewrite the script that has already played out) but we’re taking our attention away from the only source of comfort, the only escape from our bind: our direct experience of now — which is pictures, sensations and sounds — the feeling of regret.
So let’s go back to Japanese stock market and those shares I should have held on to. Or to that party you missed, or the person you upset, or job you didn’t get.
Is it a fact that ‘I should never have..’? Or that ‘you should have …’.? Is ‘if only ….’ true?
That statement is pulling the wool over your eyes. Mental pictures, sensations and sounds are all that is here, now. There is no past, there are only feelings about the past, masquerading as facts. That is it. We live in an eternal present and the past and the future are created only in the mind.
I challenge you to find anything of ‘I should have …’ that exists anywhere but in your mind and body. I challenge you to find the moment when things could have been different. It might seem real to you now, but where was it 20 minutes ago? Where will it be this time tomorrow? It will probably simply be …. Gone.
‘I should have …’ persecutes us, it steals our present and it can even be fatal. A friend told me a story about a woman whose belief ‘I should have’ became so disturbing and unliveable-with that she ended her own life. She has my deepest sympathies as I tormented myself with the same thought — so strongly that it became my whole identity — I imagined my friends thinking ‘oh there goes Sally, who should never have …’
‘I should have …’ is a feeling, not a fact. And that means it can be released.
If you’re not yet convinced, try this practice from the Sedona Method, led by Hale Dwoskin: