Often people who are depressed find themselves thinking or saying, “If only I had. . .” or “I
should have. . .” or I shouldn’t have. . .” The trouble is that we can’t really know what would
have happened if we had done things differently, and we can drive ourselves crazy because we want to believe we can always control everything.
For example, most women who experience a miscarriage or stillbirth find themselves wondering what they did wrong when in fact they did nothing to cause their loss. The bottom line is that often we have no control over things that happen, but that’s a difficult thing to admit, because it means we are vulnerable and being vulnerable is frightening. Instead we comfort ourselves with the belief that we could have controlled the situation if only we had done things differently.
It’s only sensible to look ahead, to think before we act, to realize things can possibly go wrong, and to avoid obstacles as much as we can, but it’s unrealistic to think that things should never go wrong.
I know a man who once made it to his place of employment in twenty-six minutes. He then concluded that it should never take him more than twenty-six minutes to make that trip, and that was how much time he allowed himself. Naturally, he was often late, which made him angry at other drivers and the stoplights—which he decided were “not timed right.” Even witnessing an accident aroused no sympathy for the unfortunate persons involved. Instead he felt they were “screwing up his day.” In other words, “If only they had…” or “They should have…” Needless to say, he was generally unhappy and so were the people around him!
It’s difficult but important to accept that the world is not perfect and we can’t control everything. All we can do is plan prudently.
Here’s an exercise to gauge whether you’re making yourself unhappy: pay attention to the number of times you say or think, “If only I had…” and ask yourself whether you know that you could have avoided the problem. If you don’t know for sure, let it go. If you find yourself saying, “If only they had…,” remind yourself that you can’t control other people.
Stephanie Kay Bendel is the author of EXIT THE LABYRINTH: A Memoir of Early Childhood Depression – Its Onset and Aftermath, MAKING CRIME PAY: A Practical Guide to Mystery Writing, and A SCREAM AWAY, a romantic thriller published under the house name, Andrea Harris. She has also written numerous short stories and articles on writing.