On a cloudy February day, Joe sits in his living room thinking about the past. He regrets not accepting a job offer 20 years ago and wonders how his life might be different if he had. He feels sad and mad, but mostly bad, about the decision he made. “Why didn’t I take that job?” he ponders, “If I had, everything would have been better.”
Mary thinks back about a bad relationship she stayed in way too long, hoping her partner would change. Guess what? He didn’t. “Why did I stay so long?” she pines. “I was so foolish.”
Sam wonders why he decided to become a lawyer. “Now I have thousands of dollars of student loans and I hate my job.”
At some time or another, all of us have looked back at our past choices or actions and fell down, what I call, “The rabbit hole of roads not taken.” We start to think about a choice gone bad and before we know it, we are at the bottom of that rabbit hole and everything is dark.
It can lead to an extended visit to “Pity City.” A friend of mine once said, “Its OK to visit Pity City, just don’t move in.” There are many occasions when feeling sorry for oneself is healing. But if it goes on too long, it can become a way of life — a prescription for misery.
So how can we understand those paths not taken?
There are usually compelling reasons for the decisions we make. At any fork in the road there are many considerations at play — our recent past, our current goals and external circumstances for which we have no control. When we made the decision, we had many good reasons that made sense to us at the time.
We don’t have a crystal ball. Where a chosen path will lead us is unknown. There are multiple forces at play that are outside of our control but can impact how a decision turns out. When intelligent businesspeople invested their life savings in Enron, who would have guessed that it would go belly-up a few years later?
Love is a blind. This is both good and bad thing. Our romantic choices are rarely based on our partners checking all our boxes. Our heart has a large vote when it comes to love, but sometimes we overlook a red flag that we should have saluted. Love is a learning experience too. Our relationship history teaches us important lessons that are valuable for making wise relationship choices in the future.
How do we know the path not chosen would be better? For some reason, we think the grass is greener on the road we did not take. Joe assumes that the job offer he declined would have been better than the job he took. But how does he know? That path might have him led him into even more unhappiness.
Life is a learning experience. We evaluate our choices by whether we were happy or unhappy with the outcome of a particular path we chose. But each choice we make in life brings us a variety of new experiences, different opportunities for growth and personal development, and can help us become a better person — the person that we hope to be.
Life is an adventure. We don’t know where a path will ultimately lead us — whether it be a relationship, a job or a career choice. Unexpected challenges and twists and turns in the road will likely arise. These experiences can help us grow and mature.
Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic, a part of Optum. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/health-wellness-library.html.