Counterfactual Thinking: Why We Dwell on What Could Have Been

Learn the pros and cons of this common tendency

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In psychology, counterfactual thinking is the tendency we have to ruminate on the past and wonder “what could have been.” It involves thinking about the “what ifs” and “if onlys” as we envision what might have happened if we had taken a different path, made a different decision, or if a series of events somehow played out differently.

“I’ll see this type of thinking a lot when anxiety is fueling a person’s thoughts about how they handled a situation,” notes Nicholette Leanza, LPCC-S, a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor with Lifestance Health. “They envision what might have happened if things had gone differently or if certain choices or actions had been taken or not.”

Below, we'll explore different examples of counterfactual thinking, share some ways it might be helpful, and outline some of its potential pitfalls. And for those who tend to fall into this rabbit hole and find it tricky to get out, we’re offering some tools you can use to curb this line of thinking.

What Are the Types of Counterfactual Thinking?

There are two primary types of counterfactual thinking: upward and downward. Let’s explore both. 

Upward Counterfactual Thinking

This zeroes in on how the past could have been better. It often entails wishing we could go back and change things or make different decisions. Examples of this type of counterfactual thinking might include:

  • Dwelling on “Missed Opportunities”: We often see things much more clearly once time has passed, which can cause us to ruminate on what we “missed out on.” This can include everything from not “timing the market” well enough and missing out on a lower housing interest rate or spike in stocks, or not going for the promotion and seeing a colleague celebrate instead.
  • Fixating on a Breakup: For example, maybe you wish you had looked more carefully for signs your partner was going to break up with you, that you had taken more time to nourish the relationship, or that you hadn’t stayed so long in a dysfunctional situation. 

A study published in the Clinical Psychology Review found that upward counterfactual thinking was associated with present and future depression.

Downward Counterfactual Thinking

This type of counterfactual thinking ruminates on how something in the past could have been much worse. Some specific examples could include:

  • Car Accident: After getting into a car accident, you may think about how things could have been so much worse. You might envision scenarios where you had a serious injury or maybe even hurt someone else. 
  • Averting a Potential Crisis: Experiencing a feeling of luck or gratefulness when hearing about a crisis someone else experienced but that you avoided.

Downward counterfactual thinking is interesting because it can result in working ourselves up into “worry spirals” or create a feeling of guilt if we averted a crisis but someone else wasn’t fortunate. At the same time, though, it can also have some benefits in that it helps us feel gratitude for how things did transpire in our favor.

Findings in a 2021 study suggest that downward counterfactual thinking may be an effective way to regulate emotions in people with high levels of anxiety.

Is Counterfactual Thinking Healthy?

It’s important to note that both upward and downward counterfactual thinking is a completely normal part of the human experience. What’s more, this retrospection can even serve as a helpful tool as we navigate our paths moving forward.

Nicholette Leanza, LPCC-S

[Counterfactual thinking] can help us to learn from our mistakes and lead us to better decision-making in the future by enabling us to anticipate potential outcomes for more informed decisions.

— Nicholette Leanza, LPCC-S

“In many cases, it can be healthy to indulge in this type of thinking,” says Leanza. “It can help us to learn from our mistakes and lead us to better decision-making in the future by enabling us to anticipate potential outcomes for more informed decisions.” 

Leanza adds that it can also boost our creativity by encouraging us to think outside of the box, which can guide us to new ideas and solutions. That said, it’s important to strike a balance between reflecting on the past and focusing on the present and our future.

What Are the Dangers of Counterfactual Thinking?

The biggest potential issue with counterfactual thinking is that we can often get stuck in this nebulous make-believe world in our minds—a past that can’t be changed and has no little, if any, impact on our current reality. 

“If you find yourself constantly dwelling on what might have been, it can lead to rumination and regret, which can keep you stuck in the past and neglecting the present,” notes Leanza. “Rumination, perseveration, and overthinking can all be seen as cousins in the family of anxiety, and when you’re stuck in this mode, it can be really exhausting and sink our mental health.” 

Some signs that you’re entering a potentially negative territory include: 

  • Fixating on thoughts to the point it’s distracting you from daily life
  • Losing sleep because you're thinking about “what could have been” 
  • Spiraling into worry or anxiety about a situation that never took place 
  • Beating yourself up over the past 
  • Feeling deep unhappiness or depressed about things that happened in the past

How To Curb Counterfactual Thinking

If you find yourself in a place where you’re dwelling too much on “what could have been,” it’s important to switch gears. 

Charlene Gethons, psychotherapist

Choosing to instead focus your thoughts on the reality of this moment leads you down a path where you can figure out what to do next.

— Charlene Gethons, psychotherapist

“Choosing to instead focus your thoughts on the reality of this moment leads you down a path where you can figure out what to do next,” says Charlene Gethons, a psychotherapist and founder of The Mindfulness Journey. “It’s easier said than done at times, but it happens in time the more you practice mindfulness and bring your thoughts back to this moment.” 

Gethons recommends the “STOP” technique in these moments when we start fixating on the past. It involves taking these four simple steps: 

  • Stop what you’re doing
  • Take a deep breath 
  • Observe the present. What are you thinking and how are you feeling? What do you see, hear, taste, and smell? “Checking in with your five senses is a great way to shift your focus into the present moment,” Gethons says. 
  • Proceed mindfully.  

“It might not always feel like it, but we have a choice in each moment where we want to direct our attention,” Gethons says. “Even if that means we have to redirect it every couple of seconds.”

It’s also important to remain kind and understanding toward yourself, and to recognize that we all make mistakes. There’s no such thing as a perfect path so show yourself compassion.

Counterfactual thinking can help us learn from our mistakes, help us problem-solve, and inspire us to make different decisions in the present and for our future. At the same time, getting stuck in a counterfactual spiral doesn’t serve us.

Therefore, striking a healthy balance between informative retrospection and unhelpful rumination is key. This can be cultivated by being gentle with ourselves, practicing self-awareness, and engaging in mindfulness. 

2 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Broomhall AG, Phillips WJ, Hine DW, Loi NM, Upward counterfactual thinking and depression: A meta-analysis. (2017). Clinical Psychology Review, 55, 56–73. doi:10.1016/j.cpr.2017.04.010

  2. Parikh, N., De Brigard, F., & LaBar, K. S. (2022). The efficacy of downward counterfactual thinking for regulating emotional memories in anxious individuals. Frontiers in Psychology, 12, 712066. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2021.712066

By Wendy Rose Gould
Wendy Rose Gould is a lifestyle reporter with over a decade of experience covering health and wellness topics.