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The Game Of What-If

I’m guilty of playing this game. A lot. Too many times. It’s an unhealthy habit. But acknowledging it and trying to break this habit is half the battle, am I right? We all play a version of the game “What If?” in our head, in whatever way our mind takes us through it. Some of us pose the question “What If?” to ourselves maybe daily, weekly, or as occasions or situations arise. A flurry of thoughts gets unlocked and thus the game launches in your head. 


I have been guilty of being a major What-If person since I was a little girl. And it seems logical that as we get older and mature, the caliber of What Ifs changes, evolves, and grows as well. For me, it might have started when I was around 7 or 8 years old. I remember thinking to myself “Oh my gosh, what are they going to think if I wear 2 different Converse shoe colors like Punky Brewster? (true story, I was obsessed and had purple and red ones and did it all the time). What if they make fun of me? What if I get in trouble at school? What if Meredith and the other girls don’t like them? I went on and on about stupid Kid What Ifs for most of my childhood. I instilled fear and insecurity in myself by constantly asking these types of things to myself. 


I’m 43 years old and have been dragged through the trenches of the adult world pretty much alone and by myself (with my now-adult son). I look back at my kid What If situations and roll my eyes. Now, as a parent, I would answer to my lil’ Erika kid self and say something to the effect of: “Who cares what anyone else thinks? You won’t get in trouble at school. And if you do for wearing 2 different shoes, you tell Principal Bradley to call me. Ok? You Do You. Stand up straight with your chest out and don’t be afraid of anything or anyone. Love you, bye, go to school.” 


I never got that kind of support or response back in my household. Getting built up with confidence and being raised with individuality was never a part of my upbringing. That is not a complaint, justification or excuse in any way, but that might be the smoking gun and missing link about why someone even develops to play this dangerous game in their head. 


Adult What If is where it gets real, where the game is way more serious and the aftermath of the thoughts can have a negative effect. For me, my What If game goes DEEP and not only includes scenarios wrapped in the past but also includes future scenarios proposed. Too deep and too much if you ask me, but that’s what my therapist is for.


Trust me, I would much rather prefer to play a basic and innocent version of the What If game. I would love to have straightforward and normal thoughts pop up in my head like…What If I did decide to go to Vegas next weekend? What If that event had been outdoors? What If I wore the shoes I originally wanted? What If I tried veganism for a month? 


My game is called “What If” with a side of “I Wonder If”. These have been some of the thoughts I have personally conjured up in my head based on my real-life experiences. Posing these questions in my head randomly has seemed to help me a little bit with trying to accept why things happened the way they did and why things turned out and were shaped in my life the way they did. Who knows if that's healthy or not?


Let me give you some examples: 


  • What if my immigrant Indian parents didn’t end up choosing to live in one of the most rural parts of America in the 1980s (New Hampshire)? “I wonder if” my life would have been different if that wasn’t my reality. Would I have been accepted and embraced in school and have a thousand friends today? Would I have still been a star athlete in school if there were other things to do for me or people to spend time with growing up? Would my family have been spared from the numerous racist occurrences we all dealt with growing up? 


  • What if my parents weren’t arranged for marriage and got to choose who they married and truly loved? I wonder if my mom would have been a completely different woman living for herself…a respected, strong, independent, loved by her man woman who would pour that same power and love into her kids. Would I have “turned out” differently?


  • What if I was an only child versus a middle one? I wonder if the trajectory of my life would have been different. Would I have gotten more attention, more love, more support? Would I have turned out differently?


  • What if NO colleges accepted me? I wonder where I would be today. (I only got into 1 school, so there wasn’t much of a choice for me)


  • What if my sister and I grew up as best friends rather than competitors and frenemies? I wonder if…


  • What if I did not have a child at the age of 25 and never became a single mom? I wonder if...


  • What if our family owned a dog growing up? I wonder if…


  • What if I knew what I wanted to do in life when I was in high school and pursued that in college? I wonder if I would be making 6 figures right now…


  • What if I ended up meeting and marrying a life partner and companion?  Instead of being a never-married 43-year-old single mom and Indian woman, I wonder if I would have been treated differently by my extended family or in my professional and personal adulthood today.


There are so many more! You get my point. The What Ifs seem like they play off regrets (big or small) or possibly alternative scenarios you have thought about before and wished for at one point in your life or another. I can look back at these bullet points and feel like answering them is easy. I would and could build this ultimately positive answer that involved visions and experiences where I lived in the dream city, in the best neighborhood, had a ton of friends, lived in the biggest house with my family, who were all best friends and loved each other. And I would probably be married with kids working like an average American like we all are. 


Playing the game of What If is a waste of time for you mentally. It’s like you are just asking to tell yourself and come up with a make-believe world and story about yourself. You get to answer the What If and come up with some magical, ideal vision and life story to possibly make yourself feel better. No one has time to play this game and should not make time in their day, or mind for that matter. I try to actively catch myself from thinking about random and weird What If scenarios that pop up now. 


Perhaps I need to rephrase my game to Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda. To me, that at least demonstrates acknowledgment that yes, other paths offered during your lifetime could have been way better, easier or healthier, etc. But focus on the here and now. How you are built here and now. Looking back, I coulda, woulda, and shoulda have done things differently or put myself in better situations, but rather than regret, it seems like a reflection to me phrasing it like that. 


Thinking about this post, do you play this game in your head? What would your bullet points be?  It's an interesting exercise to do with yourself, but don't get sucked into your mental vortex about it. Like I said it's too deep and too much if you ask me, but that’s what my therapist is for...to help me not play games in my head and to face reality HEAD ON.




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