Counterfactuals & The ‘what if, would have, could have’ gang

Counterfactual thinking is a concept that refers to our tendency to imagine various alternatives to life events that have already occurred. Typically, this involves a scenario that is different from what actually occurred and consists of thoughts such as, “What if” or “If only I had done … then I could have prevented this.”  

In this way, counterfactual thinking focuses on how the past might have been different, or how the present could be different, if only this occurred, or if only we had done something differently.  

When added to its cousin, rumination, which involves continuously thinking about the same thought or worry, a very unhelpful pattern can emerge. Before we know it, we can easily find ourselves ruminating about how things could have been different if only we had acted differently. In psychology, this type of counterfactual thinking is referred to as self-referent upward counterfactual thinking.

Self-referent upward counterfactual thinking (“If only I had…”) can contribute to a number of difficulties. As you can imagine, this pattern can easily take a toll on our self-esteem and lead to self-blame and guilt. It can also contribute to symptoms of depression and anxiety.  

A 2020 study of counterfactual thoughts in the journal Behavior Therapy found that self-referential upward counterfactuals were associated with prolonger grief and depression symptoms following a loss. In contrast, engaging in a slightly different form of counterfactual thinking, nonreferent downward counterfactual thinking (“It could have been worse…”) was actually helpful in promoting a healthy bereavement process. Related research on posttraumatic stress further supports the adaptive role of this type of counterfactual thinking and suggests a positive relationship between nonreferent downward counterfactual thinking and healthy posttraumatic growth.

Nonreferent downward counterfactual thinking involves thoughts such as, “If … had happened, the current situation could have been much worse.” Here we see a shift away from an orientation to oneself as well as a change in the way the situation is appraised. There is a focus on how things turned out better than they could have been and there is room to focus on the future. This type of counterfactual thinking (“It could have been worse…”) can actually be adaptive as we focus on positive aspects of an outcome and avoid self-blame.  

Strategies to address counterfactual thinking

Labeling – The first and most helpful thing you can practice is labeling. Notice what you are thinking and label it. Are you imagining scenarios about how you could have done something differently? Label this as a self-referent counterfactual (“If only I had…”) and acknowledge it as unhelpful. Alternatively, you can simply state, “I’m doing it again,” which is a personal favorite.  

Participant Observation  – Pause and question your thoughts with curious attention. Ask how did I come to this conclusion? How can I be so sure? Is there any possibility that there is another explanation? What or who else might have contributed to this outcome? In a week or a month from now, is it possible that I will see things differently? What is most important right now?

Awareness – Increased awareness is both a precursor and outcome of labeling our thoughts. As you expand on your awareness you will likely experience a greater sense of agency or control over your thoughts. You may also have more room to consider alternatives. Likewise, you are more likely to see thoughts as mental events, rather than as facts.  

Mindfulness meditation with notation – Awareness of your thoughts and feelings is generally regarded as adaptive. We can practice extending our awareness through a nonjudgmental and curious mindset, while using notation to label our thoughts and feelings. Take a few moments to sit quietly and observe what thoughts come to mind. Note each thought as a thought and each feeling as a feeling. Allow yourself to check-in with the thought or feeling. After you have noted it, let it pass knowing you have given it adequate space and attention. You can note counterfactual thoughts using the same process. 

We all have a tendency for counterfactual thinking and rumination. If we can practice labeling and becoming aware of our thought patterns and our feelings it is possible to gain some control over our automatic thoughts. We can then shift our thinking in a more productive direction.     

Broadly speaking, counterfactual thinking is not inherently unhealthy as it has inherent adaptive functions, such as regulating affect, preparing for the future, changing behavior, implementing goals and experiencing self-efficacy. However, problems can arise when we engage in a specific type of thinking (self-referent upward counterfactual thinking) and ruminate on what we “could have or should have done” in the past.  

With this in mind, we can practice labeling and relating to our thoughts differently when we find ourselves coming out of a difficult situation, recent mistake, or a loss. Shifting towards nonreferent downward counterfactual thinking, “it could have been worse,” and introducing self-compassion, “I did the best I knew how to do at the time,” are healthy ways of promoting your resilience and well-being.  

Dr. Thomas Lindquist, Psy.D.

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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Published by tlindquistpsyd

Licensed Clinical Psychologist

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