Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda: Why You Can’t Stop Obsessing About the Past

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A disappointment can quickly turn into an obsession when you can’t mentally resolve a past issue. (Illustration: Erik Mace)

LeBron James can’t get over his team’s NBA Finals loss last month to the Golden State Warriors. He says he still has nightmares about specific plays, missed opportunities. Even his kids know he’s in a funk.

“You can never get out of it,” James told Bleacher Report radio. “No matter how much you try and say you did everything you did, you gave everything that you had and you move on, I don’t feel like you ever move on. You’re right there in the Finals and you had an opportunity to do something special.”

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LeBron James admits to obsessing over his team’s loss in the NBA Finals. (Photo: Ben Margot/AP)

A loss in the big game. A missed opportunity. The loss of a job. A breakup. A friend’s betrayal. A death in the family. Sometimes we just can’t stop turning the past over and over in our minds, despite the fact that we cannot change it.

Why do we obsess?
A disappointment can quickly turn into an obsession if a person cannot mentally resolve the past issue, says psychologist Karla Ivankovich, PhD, an adjunct professor at the University of Illinois Springfield.

“In most cases, you ignore, suppress, or redirect your thoughts,” she tells Yahoo Health. “You are able to move on after a brief period of time, when you have resolved the matter to the best of your ability, whether literally or by way of acceptance. But thoughts turn obsessive when they are recurrent and persistent, and produce significant anxiety as a result of an inability to cease thinking about the particular event, thought, or feeling.”

From a clinical perspective, this process of obsessing over the past is actually defined by a slightly different process-oriented term, says Simon Rego, PsyD, director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center/Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York.

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“In cognitive behavioral therapy, the idea of someone going over and over the past is a process called rumination,” he explains to Yahoo Health. “You think of a cow chewing its cud, digesting and regurgitating it, again and again. It’s the same idea. Typically, we see this in people with depressive histories.”

The underlying problem is an unresolved issue. “When something is not resolved in a way that feels right in our psyche, we often find ourselves stuck in this area,” Ivankovich says, whether it’s from a month ago, a year ago, or even from childhood.

It might be harder to let go of something rooted in our sense of identity, according to Diane Robinson, PhD, a neuropsychologist at the UF Health Cancer Center at Orlando Health. “For someone like LeBron James, he knows he’s the best, and winning is almost like a right. His personality is so invested in it, the ‘obsession’ becomes wrapped up in his identity. It’s kind of like the loss of a relationship. Think about a teenage girl with her first boyfriend; when they break up, if she’s built her life around this person, it’s a part of her identity. If she doesn’t have him, she’s lost.”

Why can’t we let go?
The more you think about a specific moment, person, or event in the past, the harder it is to let go. Robinson says to think of it like a forest, in which you’re carving pathways in the directions of your thoughts. “The more you obsess about it, the wider the pathway becomes,” she explains. “It becomes the path well-traveled, and your thoughts move in that direction.”

When there’s a recurrent negative theme in your history — like James’s four Finals losses, or a pattern in your relationships that causes them to sour — that path becomes wider and your brain’s default. “For LeBron, with each loss, the past is cemented in his neural pathways,” Ivankovich says. “We look back and obsess as a mechanism to gain understanding into what we ‘coulda, shoulda, woulda’ done differently had we been given a chance.”

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To a certain extent, Rego says, it’s important to realize that rumination is a natural human reaction. “The process falls along a spectrum,” he explains. “The brain is doing the best it can to rationalize and accept what’s happened.”

In most situations, and for healthy individuals, it’s OK to obsess for a little while before moving on. It might even be a good thing, as your brain is determining better ways of dealing with past events that may pop up again in the future. “You are able to address the issue, determine a corrective path for the future, and keep a mental store available so when it arises again, you can address it differently,” Ivankovich says.

Typically, we’ll get more chances to rewrite our personal histories. If someone breaks up with you, you can address the reasons for the split before your next relationship. If you get fired from your job, you can make changes to your career life moving forward into your next position. If a friend betrays you, you can look for similar traits and patterns that might indicate someone is not trustworthy in the future. If you lose the big game, you can practice harder and smarter to prepare for the next time it arises.

How to break out of an obsessive thought pattern
Usually, you’ll be better able to accept the past when you apply the lessons you gleaned from your rumination phase. “We are able to learn from prior events and write a script for ourselves that allows for differences to be made in the event the situation arises again,” says Ivankovich.

Ivankovich says that you may have to cycle through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief — denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance — in whatever order your brain decides works best for you.

Also, think back to that well-traveled path of obsession. The way off that road, Robinson says, is to direct your thoughts and energies down “incompatible pathways” entirely unrelated to the object of your obsessive ruminations. “If you’re trying to get over a relationship, for instance, you can’t just not think about it,” she says. “You need to do something new, something completely different — like singing at the top of your lungs with your friends at a bar on a Friday night.”

If you really can’t stop obsessing over losses, breakups, or other past events, you may want to try cognitive behavioral therapy. “It can be critical for learning techniques like thought restructuring and thought redirecting,” says Ivankovich. “You direct your thoughts away from the negative to a safer, positive thought. This anxiety reduction technique can be very beneficial.”

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Rego, who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy, advises his patients to use several tactics. “You can try doing a cost-benefit analysis,” he suggests. “Ask yourself, ‘If I review this one more time, how will I benefit and what will the cost be?’ Write it down: benefit versus cost. Usually, you’ll see what the rumination is costing you in terms of energy and functioning.”

Rego also says practicing mindful meditation can help you break your thought patterns. “If rumination is revisiting the past, mindfulness is turning your attention to the present moment. You’re observing your thoughts in the moment, without reacting to them or judging them.”

If you’re struggling with the past and it’s impacting your day-to-day functioning, especially if it’s something that’s truly unchangeable, like a death, seek professional help. But remember that many opportunities in life that we beat ourselves up over do repeat themselves later on.

And when you get those opportunities to revise your own history, jump on ’em. “The key is in resolving the unresolved issues,” Ivankovich says. “In relationships or in situations.”

So, chin up, LeBron. Next year’s coming quickly.

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