I did something terrible last week. I'm talking stuff-of-my-worst-nightmares terrible. Even though it was an accident, I have relived it multiple times in my mind.
My husband and I were enjoying a mutual day off, so we decided to tackle the garage. We put on old clothes, grabbed some trash bags, and let his parents' old dog, Loki, out to hang out with us while we cleaned and organized. You might remember that my word of the year is DECLUTTER, so I was excited to complete yet another project. We cleared piles, threw away a LOT of stuff, loaded up give aways, listed the old grill and an old bike on the local yard sale page, put gear in its proper place, cleared surfaces and organized shelves. It was glorious. And honestly, with the two of us working together and in the zone, the progress was quick and satisfying.
The final step was sweeping and spraying down the garage floor, which had built up a year's worth of dirt, leaves and gravel. We grabbed our keys. Dave pulled out his car first. A few minutes later, I climbed in my car and drove out. What happened in the moment is a blur. I remember sensing something was wrong. I heard some sounds that didn't make sense. I looked up and saw my husband gesturing wildly in the rear view. His expression brought me--literally--to my senses, and I realized with complete horror that I had run over the dog. (This is the part where you cringe...)
I jumped out and ran around the car. Loki was standing and Dave was with him, checking him over. I'm embarrassed to admit that I failed the "will you keep your cool in an emergency" test...because I absolutely DID NOT keep my cool. I was sobbing and hysterical. I could barely breathe, let alone be of any help in the assessment.
Loki was and is fine. Miraculously, he was laying directly in front of the car, so while the car ran over him, the wheels did not. I think it also worked to his advantage that he is old and deaf, so he probably stayed in his flat, soaking up the sun position until he got brushed awake by the undercarriage. I took him to the vet anyway, and she verified that he seemed fine, checked that he had complete range of motion in all limbs, gave me some warning signs to look for in case he had any internal injuries and sent us home with some pain medication should he wake up stiff and sore.
I gave Loki everything he wanted that day...extra treats, lots of cuddles and a bath. I called my mother-in-law to confess what I had done. Even though we have a loving, trust-filled relationship, and even though I know she is a rational person, I was still terrified to tell her. She took it extremely well, of course, and even sympathized with me for the the trauma it had caused. Still, I feel embarrassed and even ashamed that it happened. You have probably gathered that I love all animals, and causing any pain to them is the LAST thing I want to do.
This incident has also highlighted an unsavory habit of my human brain. Loki is fine...unscathed, in fact. He is back home with my in-laws and living the good life. I, on the other hand, cannot stop thinking about "what if?" What if he had been positioned just a few inches off center and I had broken one of his legs? I won't go into all the other scenarios that have crossed my mind because I'm sure you can imagine them and honestly, they are too dark to write about on this blog. The point is...the dog is FINE. Why does my mind insist on continuing to ask..."but what if it had been worse?"
The flip side of this habit might be even more pervasive. Something bad happens, often something we don't even have control over, and our minds always go to...but if only it hadn't happened. We bemoan our past decisions. We regret what we've said or failed to say. "If only I had taken the other job." "If only I had communicated with my spouse better." "If only I had stayed home that night." "If only I had ordered the chicken instead of the fish."
Do you see how futile and dangerous this thinking is? So much mental and emotional energy gets wasted on "what might've been." But here's the thing...the idea of what might've been is a false notion. There is only one path and you are walking on it. This does not require a belief in fate or destiny or God's will. This just requires a lack of belief in time travel. As nice as it would be to have a Groundhog Day scenario, the truth is, we only get to live each moment one time. You can let this idea paralyze you or you can find some freedom in it. You CAN'T change the past. Spending your time thinking about shoulda, coulda, wouldas is stealing valuable energy and creativity from more productive efforts of your mind. If you are stuck in your past, you cannot be enjoying the present or making strides toward a better future.
So what's the takeaway here? What's the strategy when past events come back to haunt us and taunt us with "what if...?"
If you have ever tried meditating, you know that it is the constant practice of catching your mind drifting into thoughts and nonjudgmentally bringing yourself back to your breath and the moment. This is not easy. I doubt I've ever gone even a minute without getting distracted by my internal racket. Thought awareness isn't just for meditation, however. The first step is to recognize when you dive into "what if" or "if only" thinking and gently remind yourself that the past is the past and therefore out of your control.
If the worst did not happen (like in my story above, thank goodness), take a moment to be grateful. Yes, it could've been much worse. But it wasn't. Instead of allowing my mind to imagine a much sadder conclusion, I practice redirecting my thoughts toward gratitude and awareness. I am so grateful that Loki is alive and uninjured and will live many more days to annoy me with his begging. And I am more aware. When I go to the barn, I know there's a cat who has a habit of laying under cars. Before the Loki accident I didn't always think to check before driving away. Now, I always peek under my car to make sure no critters are napping there.
If, on the other hand, you are regretting a bad outcome and find yourself thinking "if only it had gone differently," you might have to dig a little deeper to cultivate any gratitude. What did you learn from the experience? How did that experience shape who you've become? Is there a silver lining to be found? If you struggle to find anything positive, you can still focus on two important ideas: First of all, you CANNOT go back in time. What's done is done. There is a freedom there if you allow it. Since you cannot change the event itself, how can you focus your efforts on what you CAN change? Do you need to apologize to somebody or have a conversation about it? Can you improve safety to prevent a similar outcome? Can you share what you've learned to help others avoid the same result? Can you journal about it or seek therapy to help you process? Can you allow it to be part of who you are without defining you?
Secondly, you can change. People CAN change. Focusing on the past can be helpful if you do so consciously and with purpose. If your negative outcome was your own doing, how can you move on so that you are not beholden to the badness? How can you avoid repeat behaviors or vicious cycles? If your negative outcome was beyond your control, if you are dealing with loss or illness or abuse for instance, the goal is still to focus on what you can control. How do you want to show up during the struggles? What steps can you take to care for yourself and find instances (no matter how small) of joy? What meaning are giving to these events and how can you change your thinking so that it serves you better?
It is remarkably easy to be drawn into the "what ifs" and "if onlys." However, with mindful practice, you can catch yourself and reroute or reframe into more productive thinking. If you'd like to learn more about doing this in your own life, contact me to schedule a trial session.