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In my last blog I wrote about the benefits of frustration as a prompt to get you to imagine what you want.

“daring to dream is an important step in thinking about change”

This kind of imagining is future-oriented and is a creative step towards choosing what you want and taking practical steps to getting it. In this blog I want to address a much less helpful kind of imagining: past-oriented imagining.

We’ve all been there; ‘if only I hadn’t done that…’, what I should have said was…”, ‘if only it hadn’t turned out that way…..’. Going over past events with ‘if only’ thinking can be addictive and burn up untold amounts of mental energy. Rumination, going over and over past events has been identified by happiness researchers such as Martin Seligmann as one of the major barriers to being happy.

I’ve found a useful mantra that has helped me reduce my wasteful ‘if only….’thinking.    

                                                                                                                               It is was it is 

You can’t change past events and if you can recognise and accept that what has happened has really happened, this can be a powerful way to release your mental energy for thinking about the future. Only Superman gets to turn the world backwards so that he can re-do past events. The only agency you have is in the future. There have been times when I’ve been feeling anguished about something going wrong – but in talking it over with someone and being able to say “Ach, it is what it is” I’ve felt an enormous release and a readiness to move out of the rut of rumination and into a more powerful ‘what next?’ mode.

I’m not suggesting that you should ignore past errors or slights and sail blithely on. It really can be useful to examine past events in order to understand them better. Useful questions might be,

What were the context and causes of what happened?

What were the consequences?

What role did I play in making this happen?

But importantly, if you can direct your analysis towards the future with questions like

What would I do if the situation arises again?

What can I do to avoid this happening?

then you will be using your past experiences to positive effect. So, next time you find your self stuck in a vicious circle of if only….., try this mantra – “it is what it is” – what are you going to do next?