Several years from now, in say 2028, a typical therapy session with Mike, a forty something struggling with anxiety and depression unfolds … Mike shares some of his overwhelming and distressing thoughts … “I should have known better, and just stayed at my job. It is so obvious that I made the wrong decision to start my own business and help out more with my kids. I am such an idiot.” The therapist simply asks, “When did you make this decision?” Mike’s eyes smile with some resignation to the fact that it is not all his fault as he shakes his head and sighs, “2020.”
This past year – 2020 – highlights for us all so loudly and clearly like a flashing neon sign, YOU DO NOT AND CANNOT CONTROL EVERYTHING and THERE ARE A LOT OF OTHER FACTORS than your poor decision-making and unsatisfactory abilities!
We humans look back on our lives – our relationships, our decisions, our actions and nonactions – to make sense of ourselves and our lives. We yearn for a coherent narrative to give us a sense of meaning and purpose. We attempt to create order and clarity in our lives by putting ourselves and others in neat little boxes labeled good/bad, success/failure, pretty/ugly. And yes, we seek a sense of control over the good things and the bad things that happen so as to take care of ourselves and our loved ones. So, we look back at times and reflect and examine. Such is introspection and learning. We try to get a different angle on the road taken.
Yet, that thinking process, especially when we are struggling with depression or anxiety, can quickly become an unhelpful, self-critical and ruminative path characterized by hindsight bias or “I knew it all along” thinking. The expression “hindsight is 20/20” refers to hindsight bias or the idea that we can see things more clearly and accurately when we look back on it. Hindsight bias or the idea that hindsight is 20/20 generally makes us feel like crud because it is not reflective of our lived reality. The year 2020, however, really captures our lived reality, each of us living our very own horrific reality show. We see how human we all are – scared, sad, creative, opinionated, effortful, moody, tired, angry, unsure, trying, trying, trying, failing, succeeding, irritable, isolated, grateful, loving, trying – and our vision is not 20/20 because we can’t go to the eye doctor!
If hindsight bias is coming up in our thinking, it reflects a struggle to concede to the fact that we simply have to live …to live the natural course of life which means there are mountains to climb and valleys to descend as well as hurricanes, fires, tornadoes…and viruses…to survive. We cannot get rid of the storms or the viruses fast enough or even ever. Remember, regardless of vaccines or herd immunity, there will always be viruses just like there will always be storms. In storms or even when it is a clear day, we are better off driving our lives by looking mostly through the front windshield rather than the rearview mirror.
Thus, while there is a time and place for looking back and learning from our past – our successes and our failings – we ought to know now that Hindsight is 2020, not 20/20. The therapist can ask Mike and we can ask ourselves, “what did you learn in 2020?” rather than “why didn’t I see it right?” Hindsight can impart a sense of understanding and appreciation for the fact that life is rocky terrain as we integrate our steps and missteps along the way. As we end the year, let’s remind ourselves that we will have new vantage points from the mountains we climb in 2021, but that doesn’t mean we should’ve, could’ve, or would’ve in 2020.
By Ashley Bullock, PhD, Chief Psychology Officer