The "what If?" thinking state can take two forms. The more common version is comprised of concerns about future things, usually negative, that have not yet occurred. An example of this is when we are considering taking some action and we begin entertaining a litany of what ifs", related to the things we can imagine going wrong. When we experience this form, we are likely to experience a great deal of anxiety and fear to move ahead with a decision and action.
The other manifestation of "what if" thinking involves dwelling on the past and on some outcome that we wish had occurred, that in reality, did not happen. An example of past "what if" thinking is when we berate ourselves for not taking a particular course of action because the decision we actually made had a less than desirable outcome. In such cases, we are likely to experience regret, sadness, disappointment, as well as sometimes self-blame due to our past actions.
In any case, both types of "what if" thinking are unhealthy because they keep us stuck and paralyzed in terms of taking action in the present. We are either still living and attempting to change the past or attempting to predict the future; neither of which we can actually do. Therefore, these are irrational ways of thinking that hinder us and cause us distress. The healthy goal is to always operate in the present, as effectively as possible. How, then can we change such ineffective and self-defeating forms of thinking, in order to operate effectively in the present?
This is where "what is" thinking is useful and healthy. Focusing on "what is" requires us to deal with the present and with reality. The present is the only time space in which we can actually take action. Dealing with the real state of affairs enables us to actually address and overcome past problems or to embrace the possibilities of our decisions and actions having a desired and positive outcome. To do this requires us to adopt some healthy attitudes about the present, the past and the future and ourselves in those spaces, as follows:
- We only have power to act in the present.
- The past is over and cannot be undone.
- The future is unknown and cannot be predicted.
- When we forgive ourselves for past mistakes, we can free ourselves to act in the present.
- We can learn lessons from a painful past that enable us to grow and heal.
- Accepting that something undesirable previously happened means acknowledging it and addressing it, not necessarily liking or condoning it.
- When we allow ourselves to contemplate the likelihood of future success, based on present positive evidence, we feel more confident to move ahead
- A simple reminder, to help us refocus our thinking is to recognize that "what if?" is actually a question,that fosters doubt. In contrast, "what is" is actually a declarative statement, that conveys decisiveness.
- Also, remember that as we move ahead, we always have the power to change our minds and make reasonable adjustments, based on new information or circumstances, as they present themselves.
It is when we stand in the present and manage our thinking about the past and the future in healthy ways, that we can truly feel and behave in an empowered fashion.