If I had been there/said something: The tragic art of one-away
When we reflect on tragedy, trauma, and loss there is an underlying sense that finding fault in ourselves will bring an understanding of what may have been instead of the truth of what is. We find ourselves at a crossroads of memories versus the alternate reality we create. A reality that is based on a perception that we can alter time if only one interaction, one second, one comment was changed. This sensation of one-away diversions comes on gradually through a line of thinking about what role we play in the trauma or loss that has begun to occupy our mind. The internal brooding becomes a battle of false-memory entanglement as we amplify microcosms of time into deep abysses replayed frame-by-frame.
As we seek a tangible moment to indicate where and when one-away changes could have prevented the trauma or loss, a false reality begins to take shape. It blends the facts of what occurred with increasingly harsh assumptions of responsibility for past situations that cannot be changed. A pattern of looping back to the one-away moments binds and magnifies guilt to the trauma or loss. It becomes our reality by placing emphasis on that one change that ultimately takes us further from healing.
This form of stuck thinking robs us of closure and wrenches us with the guilt of being one-away from a better outcome than we have imagined. Distortions become synonymous with what actually occurred to the point that the trauma is masked with an altered memory. This retelling is often more troubling than the original trauma as it seeks ownership of a discernible moment when our one-away interjection would be the point in time that would serve as the saving grace to prevent the trauma from ever occurring.
This type of thinking is considered Hindsight Bias which is a distortion of memory. We look back at events with the knowledge of what occurred and attempt to recall them as more predictable, ultimately preventable according to our hindsight. This faulty recollection convinces us that we had an understanding that something was going to occur even when evidence is to the contrary. Not only do we find ourselves feeling guilt and remorse, we further the distortion convinced that we made a decision that was wrong which led to the trauma or loss.
Even if we made this presumed decision, we must remember that we are human. As such, we are not perfect nor should we be. We have to remember that each decision has multiple outcomes and when those one-away root causes enter our minds we must also evaluate the truth of what we actually knew at the time leading to the event. This means if we want to look back with hindsight, then we must consider the objective facts as they were leading to the trauma without a preoccupation to assume guilt. This can be difficult as we have prolonged the consideration of hindsight bias to act as a prerequisite to what is the truth of the trauma.
EXAMPLES OF HINDSIGHT BIAS
Our thoughts after the trauma unfold can consume us with distortions like:
“I knew that would happen…”
“I should have known better…”
“Why didn’t I do that…”
This fixation of guilt leads us to a rigid, linear consideration of trauma. An absence of understanding for the series of decisions we make daily that can lead to multiple outcomes and that when we made a decision we could not know the outcome with certainty.
IDENTIFYING THE CYCLE OF HINDSIGHT BIAS
- Given what we know at the time, we often make what we believe is the best decision.
- When we make a decision, we cannot know what the outcome will be.
- When we look back (hindsight bias), we know what happened (trauma) and use this knowledge to convince ourselves that we should have predicted the outcome as a likely result.
- When the outcome is unwanted, we find hindsight bias makes us feel worse since we are convinced that we knew what would happen.
- This reinforces the sensation that one decision ultimately lead to the trauma.
How do we recover from focusing on these one-away moments and decisions? After all, if we had done differently then this would not have occurred… Right?
Here’s the truth, we will blame ourselves because it might feel safer than acknowledging that negative outcomes occur, often when we have little to no control.
The one-away thinking that leads to self-blame causes unintended consequences in our thinking processes which can take a toll on our current daily lives.
HOW TO ADDRESS HINDSIGHT BIAS
We see the memories of the trauma as distortions that judge events as more predictable than they actually were. To untwist this type of rigid thinking, we can explore the past decisions with fairness through questions that consider reality as it existed before the trauma.
- What did we know at the time before the event occurred?
- What is it that we think we knew or should have known?
- How could we know something that we did not know at the time?
- If we knew then that the trauma would occur, what would we do differently?
- If the unwanted outcome did not occur, would we be obsessing over the decision we made?
- With what we knew at the time, was our decision reasonable or unreasonable?
What good does it do to beat ourselves up about past mistakes? The past is the past. If we place focus on the facts of what occurs, we process the trauma without magnification of things we more than likely had little or no control over. Finding fault in should’ve, could’ve, would’ve hindsight leads to an unfortunate focus on those one-away decisions. Think of hindsight bias as an anchor that we attempt to drag forward into the future. This makes progress on our journey in life delayed as we dredge through the present time with a fog of blame and guilt. When the fog clears and the anchor raises, we may experience the hopefulness and consideration of healing that we have sought for so long.
There are paths forward that prove alternatives to our distorted thoughts exist. Letting go of our self-judgment and one-away thinking will be the beginning of our healing journey.
How have you dealt with trauma before? Have you experienced hindsight bias? What are some ways that helped you overcome the stuck thinking?
Jeremy Fusco is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker (LCSW) providing psychotherapy in his practice based in Dallas, Texas.