I hate to admit not knowing an English language word, or compound word, such as is counterfactual.  When I first read it, on an Instagram posting by miriamlewis34575 this morning, I didn’t believe it was a real word, but quickly realized that the word makes perfect sense, and describes something that otherwise wouldn’t have a simple noun to encapsulate it.  So, getting beyond the fact that I didn’t have a clue about what it meant, I immediately sought out a definition that I could work with in the course of the conversation with this person.

close up of chess pieces

Photo by Mateusz Dach on

If only I had known the meaning of the word before chatting with Miriam, I might have appeared to actually know what I am talking about, instead of being caught off guard. I might not have looked like a complete and utter ignoramus to this erudite young woman. 

And that’s the point.  Counterfactual actually means projecting alternatives to what might have happened if such and such occurs in reality.  If I’d only done this or that…

What a useful concept.

It seems to me that what it describes is a condition commonly experienced by EVERYBODY on the planet, and is often responsible for the most negative or positive interpretations of events that occur in people’s lives.  Not the events themselves, but how we feel about them, how we cope with the actual events by reinterpreting them in terms that make sense out of otherwise potentially random and senseless events.

Unfortunately, a lot of the time, the interpretation we give an event or series of events is far more emotionally damaging than justified by the events themselves.

“If only I hadn’t been five minutes late for the exam, and failed to get into law school, my entire life would have been completely different.”  Of course, rationally a person knows that such counterfactual thinking is somewhat dangerous to your forward progress in life.  It makes excuses instead of inspiring more efforts.  At least sometimes.

In my own experience most of my regrets come from counterfactual thinking, often leading me into emotional downturns, and wasted upset, often over things not in my control.  Counterfactual thinking can ultimately be disabling, freezing me in my tracks and preventing positive planning to overcome a bad situation.

man in blue and brown plaid dress shirt touching his hair

Photo by Nathan Cowley on

Of course, that refers to Negative Counterfactual thinking rather than Positive.  But Positive Counterfactual thinking can also have negative consequences, if it causes me to fail to recognize that the unfortunate events which occurred were the result of a series of decisions well within my control, but which I chose to avoid dealing with in time to deal with the actual consequences.  It suggests that in those situations I may fail to change my future behavior as a result of learning from my own mistakes.

I don’t think that anyone can avoid counterfactual thinking.  It’s basic human nature. But we can be analytical and rational in our interpretation of our own feelings, and thereby perhaps improve our long term outcomes.


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