Coulda Shoulda Woulda
Have you ever spent way too long fantasizing about what you wish you had said or done ? I'm not just talking about the missed "zinger" of a comeback (à la George Costanza on Seinfeld. Those are fun to imagine-- I do hate it when the perfect comeback or funny response to something comes to me later at 2AM). I'm also not talking about the huge, overarching dream of somehow having the perfect life if it weren't for one or two events (I'm thinking of Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite: "If coach had just put me in the game back in '82, we'd have won State!").
We all have some regrets in our lives. That's normal. Going back and replaying the scene or situation differently, doing Coulda Shoulda Woulda, can have a few purposes. One benefit of it is that it helps us "rehearse" for future similar situations. For example, if you're someone who doesn't speak up for yourself much, imagining an assertive response to a past hurt can help prepare you to articulate yourself better the next time (another benefit is that imagining the assertive response can give you enough catharsis that you don't go "overcorrect" by punching them in the face).
The other purpose, though, which doesn't always help, is that Coulda Shoulda Woulda gives us the illusion of control over past painful situations. Grieving what is lost is SO hard, especially if we regret mistakes that we've made. But Coulda Shoulda Woulda-ing is an alternative that helps us avoid accepting what is past, and grieving it, so that we can move forward. There's a grasping quality to it-- as if revisiting it enough times and going over the mistake over and over could magically make the outcome change at some point. There can be a self-punishing quality to it; sometimes we'd rather punish ourselves than have to accept that we can't change what has happened. Either way, it can get us stuck. Our brain literally starts to reinforce neural pathways of Coulda Shoulda Woulda thinking so that we go there more frequently, until we are, as Rick Hanson calls it, "running laps on a track in Hell."
It's okay to have those thoughts of "what I wish I had done." Give yourself permission to do a little bit of that, just enough to learn from a missed opportunity. But if you start beating yourself up, stop. If you start repeating the Coulda Shoulda Woulda more than a couple of times, stop. Recognize what you've lost, give yourself the space and compassion to grieve it, say "Oops" or "Oh well" the next time you think of it, and then come back to the present.