“Why did I…”
“If only I hadn’t…”
“I should have said…”
Have you ever done something you regret, and afterward keep replaying the incident in your mind, wishing you had said or done something differently? And then you get frustrated that these thoughts keep blaring in your head, and want your brain to just shut up?
Yeah, we’ve all been there.
When your mind gets stuck in second-guessing mode, it’s actually trying to help you, but it's doing it in a really inefficient way.
By following the steps below, you can retrain your brain to stop this second-guessing pattern. And as an added bonus, when you make mistakes in the future (which, if you are human, you will), you’ll handle them with greater confidence and ease.
You mind is trying to help you
When you can’t let go of a mistake but instead keep reliving it, your mind is trying to prevent you from making the same mistake again by reminding you of what you did wrong, and beating into your head what you should have done differently.
Although your mind wants you to make wiser choices in the future, its methods often have negative consequences. Instead of feeling clear and empowered, the second-guessing pattern can overwhelm you with negative emotions (like feeling stupid, embarrassed, anxious, guilty, or angry with yourself), which make it harder for you to confidently move forward.
How to stop second-guessing yourself:
Pick a specific incident where you have been second-guessing yourself.
Step 1. Do a mind dump
On paper or an electronic device, do a stream of consciousness “mind dump” about everything that has been rattling around in your head regarding the incident. This can include:
- What happened, and why you think it was a mistake.
- Your feelings about it.
- Your self-judgments (I’m so stupid / I should’ve known better / I’m never going to learn to....)
- What you are afraid might happen (people will laugh at me / I’ll get fired / he’ll never call me again).
Really go for it and don’t censor. Even if it seems silly or your rational mind knows it isn’t true, write it anyway. Your second-guessing thoughts are clamoring for your attention, and if you don’t let them fully express themselves (outside of your head), they will keep coming up.
Step 2: What can I learn?
Imagine you are stepping back from the situation and looking at it as if you are an impartial observer. Pay attention to what led up to it, and the incident itself.
Ask yourself, “What can I learn from this?” Examples:
- Never send texts when I'm angry.
- Schedule extra time (to study before exams / prep for auditions / finish a proposal / get to work on time).
- Only share my vulnerable feelings with someone I can trust.
- Get additional training so I feel more confident.
- Discover why I reacted so intensely, and what I can do to prevent that in the future.
Write down what you discover. Make sure your answers are empowering (instead of "don't be an idiot," explore what made you feel idiotic, and write what you would want to do differently).
Step 3: Action steps
If you don’t start making changes, your mind won’t believe you have learned from the experience, and it will probably start harassing you again with second-guessing thoughts.
Here are some ways you can put those insights into action:
Talk to someone you trust: Asking for advice can help you get a clear perspective and create a good action plan.
Change it: If you really wish you could change what happened, can you?
Apologize: – Apologizing to the people involved and sharing what you learned so you won’t make the same mistake in the future helps rebuild trust. Apologizing isn’t weak, it is courageous and mature.
Learn: Sign up for a class, consult with an expert, do some research online.
Lighten up: Sometimes our minds can blow things out of proportion. Is this really as big of a deal as you think it is?
Step 4: Retrain your brain (the most important step!)
Just because you’ve made these discoveries, that doesn’t mean your brain will suddenly stop having second-guessing thoughts. You need to retrain your brain into a more productive way of functioning.
As SOON as you notice that you are second-guessing yourself again, do the following:
A. Imagine you are talking to the second-guessing part of your mind.
- Thank it for trying to have you avoid this problem in the future.
- Remind it that even though it is trying to help, it is actually having you feel stressed, scared, etc., which is the opposite of helpful.
- Tell your mind what you've learned, and what actions you are taking to avoid making the same mistake again.
B. Redirect your focus on something positive.
You might feel that the chatter in your brain is more powerful than you are, but this is NOT true.
You need to consciously pull your thoughts away from second-guessing, and redirect them on something empowering. This might be:
- The present moment (your breath, physical sensations, what you are doing right now).
- The positive action steps you are taking.
- Gratitude—what are you grateful for?
C. Lather, rinse, repeat.
The second-guessing voice may keep trying to come up. That's normal. Your brain is used to its old pattern--you've been doing it a long time. Like any habit, you need to repeat the new, healthy pattern again and again until it shifts.
So you may need to do these final steps (A, B, and C in Step 4) a number of times. Don't feel defeated by this. You CAN retrain your brain to function in a more productive way.
Ready for great news?
Every time you shift your attention from the negative chatter to a positive focus, you are building new, healthy neural pathways in your brain.
This will not only help you move through this current experience more gracefully—it is also retraining your brain for the future.
The more you use this process, the weaker and weaker the second-guessing pattern becomes, until it finally disappears.
Won't that be wonderful? Now that's worth a bit of mental practice, isn't it?
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