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The Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda’s of CBT and What to Do About Them

Have you ever thought to yourself, “If only I would have done that differently”, or “I could have done that better”, or how about “I should have been able to do that the right way”? These types of thoughts are known in the CBT world as the Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda’s. And they are problematic because this type of thinking can lead you to feelings of guilt, regret, and shame. This type of thinking will keep you trapped. It will keep you from moving forward in your life and from reaching your success.

Some Examples

We all engage in this type of thinking. Have you ever thought to yourself something like:

“I could have passed this test if only I’d studied harder.”

“If only I’d have listened better, I woulda been able to save my marriage.”

“I should have known better and been able to make better decisions for myself. I wouldn’t be in this financial mess now if I had.”

“I should have married Hillary when I had the chance! Now I’ll never have anyone!”

“If only I would of listened to my sister, then I wouldn’t be in this trouble.”

This type of thinking is essentially looking back on your decisions and second-guessing them. Not only that, but it’s you harshly judging yourself for your past decisions, and projecting a future based on your fantasy of what might have been if only you had made better choices. Yes, I said fantasy because you don’t know what might have happened if you had chosen differently! Things might have turned out better, but they just as easily could have been worse! Or the results might have been exactly the same. And unless you have a time machine that lets you travel back in time to try out different decisions and their outcomes, you are only guessing at what might have happened. Do you see how this can be destructive to you? How it can harm your self-esteem and your ability to make decisions in the future?

The Emotions of Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda

We often use the phrase “woulda, could, shoulda” to express regret for something that we did in our past that led to a negative result. Out of this regret, we might feel anger at ourselves for making a mistake or missing an opportunity. We might feel guilty or shameful. Or if we are aiming the thought at another’s actions, we might feel angry at them for messing up so badly.

Now, I’m not going to say that these feelings aren’t legitimate or even useful at times, because they can be very useful. For instance, if you did something that hurt your partner, feeling regret and anger might prevent you from making that mistake again. But if you are using these feelings to beat up yourself (or your partner), then they can keep you trapped in a past mistake and keep you from moving forward. If this type of thinking becomes a pattern that is used often, it can lead to indecision, low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, and even hopelessness for the future. It often leads to feeling overwhelmed. So how do we move forward from a mistake without falling into this trap?

How to Move Forward From a Mistake

1. Deep Breathing. If you’ve read any of my blogs, you probably saw this one coming! I am a big believer in the power of deep breathing to manage through our emotions and settle the fight or flight response our bodies have to stressful situations. If you want instructions on how to start deep breathing, check out my blog here.

2. Limit the time you spend feeling overwhelmed or full of shame, anger, or regret. Allow yourself to feel the emotions for a set amount of time, and then get up and do something different. Sometimes it can be helpful in moving on if you write down what actually happened and your response to it. If it’s a large event that is fairly new, you may want to set a limit on the time you spend thinking about the event per day. But if this was something that happened a long time ago, gently remind yourself that this is something that you’ve been worrying over for a long time now and that it is OK to move on.

3. Reframe your thinking. This is a CBT technique that can really be helpful. Focus on the actual thought that you are having, and then change it to something more hopeful, or even to a neutral thought. So for instance, if your thought is “I should have known Mary would get hurt and done something differently”. Immediately upon noticing that you had that thought, replace it with something like “I’m not a fortune teller and so I really couldn’t have known what would happen. I’m going to learn from this and never make this mistake again”. Note that you will probably have to reframe your thought several times before it starts to make a difference. This is not a quick fix, but it does work if you stick with it!

4. Learn from your mistakes. We all make mistakes throughout our lives. This is one of the things that make us human! Beating up on yourself over something that happened in the past, that you can not change, does no one any good. In fact, constantly listening to you insult and put down yourself will lower your self-esteem, increase anxiety, increase depression, increase stress levels, raise your blood pressure, and a whole host of other things. Instead, try to examine what happened and learn from it so you can avoid making the same mistake in the future.

5. Appreciate what you have now. Maybe you learned something new about yourself or you were able to strengthen a relationship. Maybe somebody stuck with you despite your mistake. Or maybe you can’t even notice any gains from the experience- that’s ok! That happens too. In that instance, just look around yourself and notice what’s going right in your life. Spend a bit of time thinking of the positives in your life and serve to lift your mood, your self-esteem, and your motivation to move forward.

Final Thoughts

We all can get caught up in the regret surrounding the Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda’s, but we don’t have to stay caught up in it! Try some of the techniques I’ve listed above and if it is still something that’s bothering you, give me a call! I’d love to talk with you about CBT therapy and can be reached by following the link.


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