1. Counterfactual thinking is a response used to avoid experiencing the grief a loss has
caused and keeps us stuck in the past.
2. Challenging the failed logic of counterfactual thinking is helpful as is naming all the
‘what-ifs’ until you can confront the grief caused by the loss.
Let’s face it. Losses happen that cause grief. In response, we may find ourselves stuck in an endless cycle of ‘what if.’ What if I had sought input from a key supporter? What if I had taken twenty-four hours to reflect before acting? What if I hadn’t trusted that person?
When our thoughts focus on what could have happened, psychologists refer to it as counterfactual thinking. Counterfactual thinking involves our real or imagined role in contributing to a significant loss we have experienced. Maybe it’s the death of a loved one. We ask, “What if I had called 911 sooner?” Maybe it’s a staffing decision that caused conflict within the department or congregation. “What if I had just ignored the issue?” Counterfactual thinking leads to experiences of guilt or shame.
If we experience guilt or shame then why do we do it?
In her fantastic book, The Grieving Brain, The Surprising Science of How We Learn from Love and Loss, neuroscientist Mary-Frances O’Connor proposes that the reason our brains focus on infinite alternatives to reality is that this type of thinking distracts us from the actual painful reality of the loss and associated grief. We trade painful guilt for equally painful grief because feelings of guilt suggest we had some control over the situation. As Dr. O’Connor writes,
It feels better to have had bad outcomes in a predictable world in which we failed, than to have bad outcomes for no discernable reason.
Counterfactual thinking requires errors in “if…then” statements. For example, I recently experienced pancreatitis requiring a week in the hospital and the removal of my gall bladder. It was very humbling. Since gall stones were the culprit and are caused by eating a typical American diet, I’ve found myself asking, “What if I had eaten a low fat diet?” “What if I’d gone to the hospital sooner? Would my pancreas not become so irritated?”
The error in logic is something like:
Ate American diet ----------->Developed gall stones/pancreatitis
Here are two of my what ifs:
Developed gall stones/pancreatitis
Ate low fat diet /
\ Didn’t develop gall stones/pancreatitis
Week in hospital
Went to hospital sooner/
\ Gall bladder removed/one night in hospital/no pancreatitis
Many people eat the American diet and don’t develop gall stones or pancreatitis. For some reason, my body did. After a few weeks of what-iffing and feeling guilt and shame, I’ve named the grief associated with the loss of my sense of invicibility and am allowing myself to mourn. I also focus on gratitude for a loving wife and fantastic nurses and physicians.
Stop Counterfactual Thinking
To end counterfactual thinking and free yourself from the associated guilt or shame, the first step is become aware you are doing it. Consider writing down your loss event and then listing the various ‘what if’ statements you’ve developed.
With your list of statements, Dr. O’Connor suggests two approaches. First, challenge the beliefs that lead you to experience the guilt or shame. In my case, getting to the hospital sooner may not have had any impact on the length of my stay or the diagnosis. Maybe the surgeon who saw me in the ER wasn't on-site earlier. Maybe the damage had already happened regardless of when I went to the hospital.
A second approach is to dwell with your list. Don’t challenge your what-ifs with logical arguments. Add new what ifs as they come to mind. Eventually, you’ll develop the ability to tolerate the strong feelings of loss and begin the grieving and healing process.
Peace Be with You
We all experience significant losses. When we find ourselves, ‘what-iffing’ recognize it as our brain’s attempt to protect us from painful grief caused by a loss. Be gracious and kind with yourself. In life, we can’t control every outcome including the painful ones. Grief comes with being human. Take a breath. Peace be with you.
Reach out if you need support. Until then,