Positive psychology

Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda

By Carol Parker Thompson, Ph.D.

When you reflect on some of your questionable acts and behavior, either recent or years ago, how many times have you thought that in certain circumstances you could have behaved differently?

Is your emotional reaction to the reflection one of guilt, shame, or embarrassment thinking about how you should have acted?

If you were placed in that circumstance again, could you or would you try to make amends?

Merriam-Webster reveals an interesting history of the coulda, shouda, woulda phrase. The word “coulda” first appeared in 1606, but it was not until the 19th century that shoulda and woulda appeared in the language. “There is little or no written evidence before the 1960’s of the expression coulda, shoulda, woulda.”

What does coulda, shoulda, woulda mean?

Each word is a slang expression for could have, should have or would have that explains a lost opportunity. The word coulda implies a possibility that something more positive might have occurred under different circumstances, that is, a lost opportunity. Shoulda denotes an unfulfilled obligation to make it happen. Woulda describes what would certainly have happened if circumstances had not intervened. Or, the phrase can be used to be dismissive of one’s regrets about a past experience.

Regret is the wish that you had done something differently. It is what most of us feel at times when something bad happens and we have acted in a manner unbecoming to the person that we believe we are. Feelings of sadness, guilt, or depression may emerge when we say hurtful things, behave in unbecoming ways, or neglect our duties or obligations.

Regrets are expressed most often when one is dying. Bonnie Ware, a long-time palliative nurse has written a widely published blog citing the five regrets that she has heard most often from her patients:

1. “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.”

While many of us may have years left to live, we may have similar regrets. Those regrets may involve a job that did not work out. A relationship that ended badly. A friendship that soured. Parental-child conflicts. Stuffed, unexpressed emotions. Unrealized dreams.

You may still have time and perhaps opportunities to try and make amends. If you are fortunate, you may be able to rewrite your personal history. You may be able to get the job you always wanted, pursue a new career path, find satisfaction and fulfillment in another field, or retire to an avocation that brings you happiness.

If a relationship ended badly, you can assess your contribution to its failure, learn from its loss, vow not to make the same mistakes, and open yourself to another relationship. You never know who and where you might meet someone special.

If a friendship ends in betrayal, you have learned important lessons about who to trust and what to reveal. You can look for similar behaviors in other acquaintances that provides clues that someone is not trustworthy in the future.

If your parenting skills were inadequate (and most are), it is never too late to attempt to build close loving relationships with your children. Both of you will benefit from your efforts.

If you are a person who has issues with trust so that you reveal little of your feelings, try testing with bits and pieces of information about how you feel with someone who has your best interests at heart. See how they react. You may be surprised at the intimacy created when two people share what is important to them.

If you have dreams that never came to fruition, a “bucket list” that you want to complete before you die, then Just do it! Whatever “it” is.

There is little benefit to be gained by extended obsessing about what happened in the past. We cannot change what has happened. But we can learn from our mistakes, vow to do better, try to resolve whatever the issue is, and move on to the best of our ability.

Regrets can consume time and energy that is best spent on more productive endeavors. Your mind may want to play and replay your mistakes and failures. Psychologists call this rumination.

If you cannot stop thinking about them, here is a strategy taught by cognitive psychologists. When a negative thought comes in your mind, just yell “STOP”! out loud. This technique reduces anxiety and has the object of redirecting your thoughts and energy down more productive pathways.

When you get opportunities to revise your own history, jump on them. Don’t let regrets keep you in the past, Stop the coulda, shoulda, woulda. Live your best life. Continue to be or become your best self. Then you can live your life with no regrets.

Contact Dr. Thompson at caroltmcc@comcast.net