Dancing with the shoulda-coulda-wouldas

Posted by Kenetha Stanton on

girl in pink ballet outfit putting on ballet shoes while sitting on outdoor steps
Image by sobima from Pixabay

It's been just over four months now that I've been working full-time at my own business.

I can go days at a time with no face-to-face interactions with other people, and I have a great deal of freedom in how I schedule my days, which allows me to focus more deeply than I've been able to in years. My work can often take on the feel of a quiet meditation in motion.

I'm absolutely loving the freedom, the focus, the quiet, and the solitude! This life fits me well.

At the same time, this extreme amount of solitude is giving my brain the chance to wander off in interesting territory (without my permission, I should add).

The dreaded shoulda-coulda-wouldas

It seems to be fixated on digging up every embarrassing memory, every hint of shame, every past failure, every regret, every mistake of any kind in my past (all the way back to childhood!) and reviewing them on the large screen of my mind's eye (complete with accompanying emotions) all day every day.

This ongoing review of my life somehow manages to completely ignore and avoid every past success, every win, every joyful moment while zeroing in on those times I'd most like to forget.

I call this my shoulda-coulda-woulda syndrome—the fixation on what I should have done or said instead, what I could have done or said differently, and what would have been the result if I had chosen better.

It's not the first time my brain has felt the need to do this. It's always been my brain's default selection of memories to rehearse whenever I'm struggling in any way, which is truly not the most helpful response in times like that.

This constant review of the shoulda-coulda-wouldas invariably leaves me feeling discouraged, defective, and ashamed of myself. Those aren't helpful places from which to approach life at my best even when things are going well, much less when I'm facing hard times!

This prolonged season of facing the non-stop shoulda-coulda-wouldas in my mind is giving me the opportunity (whether I wanted it or not) to find better ways of dealing with this habitual tendency of my brain.

What doesn't work

My natural tendency when facing this kind of barrage of embarrassing memories is get to defensive. I would argue at length with the imagined (or real historical) judgments of others involved in the memory, which is really to say that I would try to argue with my own judgment of myself.

All that defensiveness managed to do was add another layer icky conflict (even just the imagined inner kind) onto the already icky feeling of being judged, embarrassed, ashamed, and wrong. Not helpful.

I tried ignoring it altogether, but that was sort of like not thinking about pink elephants. The more I tried not to listen to my brain, the louder it seemed to get (and the more dire the self-judgments it would produce to get my attention). Not at all helpful.

I also tried trying to drown out this incessant life review with music and podcasts and webinars, but my brain is not so easily distracted from its pursuit of the shoulda-coulda-wouldas. It's amazing how loud my own brain can be when it's determined to be heard.

The result was that I just managed to have the same shoulda-coulda-woulda life review taking place but just more loudly and with more noise in the background. Also not helpful.

I've tried deliberately focusing on good memories of times when I've done things I'm proud of or times when things went well. My oh-so-helpful brain seems to see this as a challenge to its ability to produce shoulda-coulda-wouldas, so it works even more diligently to remind me of how quickly things went sour in one way or another after the good memory I'm trying so hard to focus on.

All that managed to do was drag even the good memory down into the quicksand of the shoulda-coulda-wouldas. Definitely not helpful.

These various attempts not only didn't help, but they added just one more layer of judgment on top of the rest with my failure to find a way to cope with my own thoughts. There had to be a better way!

Learning to dance

A recent experience where someone blamed me for their own mistake gave me a flash of insight into a new way to cope with these shoulda-coulda-wouldas.

This person's accusation (made rather publicly) initially sent me into an unhelpful tizzy of defensiveness—much like my response to my brain's memory review—but it was clear that I was not at fault in the matter, despite her accusations otherwise.

I had done exactly what she asked and agreed to, and I finally realized that her response to her later dissatisfaction with what she had asked for was not my problem. This was really all about her and was never about me at all. That insight has helped me to slowly dissolve my anger and defensiveness sparked by her false accusation.

Watching how that process of unhooking myself (and my emotional reactions) from the barb she had sent my way gave me some insight into dealing with my own mind's accusations (even the accurate ones) about my past failures.

Whatever it is that my brain is trying to achieve with this parade of shoulda-coulda-wouldas is really not about me and doesn't require that I get hooked by their barbs.

I may not be able to stop or drown out this parade, but I can choose to dance lightly with it without engaging emotionally.

My shoulda-coulda-wouldas are slowly becoming a dance partner that is separate from me instead being the totality of who I am in the moment of the parade.

I can move toward or away from this dance partner at any time without ever identifying with it or its judgements of me. I hear them, I acknowledge that they are there, I pay attention to any lessons that might arise, and I keep on dancing.

I can watch the parade with detachment—noticing themes that arise, paying attention to commonalities in mistakes, and gently offering myself (and others) compassion for the unhappiness that has resulted from some of my past choices—without needing to actually believe any of the judgments my brain projects onto myself about what a loser I am.

Yes, I could often have done better, but I did the best I could with what I had at the moment. That makes me a fallible human, not a monstrous loser.

So far, this approach has not lessened the parade of shoulda-coulda-wouldas in the least, but it has made the parade remarkably more bearable.

I am no longer feeling so weighed down with discouragement and am instead slightly amused by my brain's unwavering fixation. I am softening with compassion for my poor, often-fallible, often-wounded self with each trip through these unwelcome memories as I continue the lightness of the dance.

That softening and lightness is slowly transforming this shoulda-coulda-woulda burden into ease.

How do you deal with the shoulda-coulda-wouldas in your life?

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