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Is "If Only" Thinking Destroying You?

Updated on December 15, 2015

Change your thinking and change your life.


The Why

Ever been reminded of something, reflect on it, and then say, “What could have happened differently?” Of course, you have.

I have just experienced this recently. It was regarding an incident with a friend of mine. In retrospect, I reviewed the situation over and over in my head. I wanted to figure out … if I had behaved, said or felt differently, would the outcome have been altered.

Survivors, who have experienced abuse, trauma, or combat situations, as well as natural or catastrophic disasters, are no different than anyone else. Survivors are just dealing with more intense, chaotic, and terrorizing recollections as well as very confusing thoughts and painful emotions.

As a result, survivors are wounded Souls, who carry baggage for years long after the initial wounding. Why? One reason is that survivors of abuse, trauma, combat or natural disasters are attempting to search, figure out and rationalize the “why?”. Questions such as … why me, why the situation, what went wrong or who was to blame.

Achieving the Why is the Answer

Not achieving an answer, survivors tend to not let go of or process the painful memories of those situations without it. The memories are held onto because it is thought the answers are within the memories. No matter how much pain, fear, or hurt they re-experience, they keep investigating and probing their memories until the answers are secured. Alas past wounds are not healed by dwelling there. The process of answer seeking is an unending labyrinth of miss leading avenues.

The attracting “style of thinking” used to explore and inspect recollections to answer unanswerable questions is through if only I would have (or had) [this or that]” thinking". This style of thinking is extremely common mode of thought across the survivor population. This tactical mode of thinking is mainly directed at his or her performance and perfectionism.

What is “If only thinking”….

I came across “if only” thinking in the majority of the survivors I have worked with over the years. In his or her post-trauma life, most survivors have the thought, “If only I would have….” In the survivor’s mind, he or she is convinced that if the answer can be found, then “I would be happy and comfortable with myself as well as fulfilled, satisfied and successful in my life.”

Common “If only” statements:

If only I would have been perfect …

If only I would have known …

If only I would have been different …

If only I would have been a better person …

If only I would have been stronger …

If only I would have been braver …

If only I had been good enough …

If only I would have been smarter …

If only I would have told someone …

… then what happened to me would not have happened.

Then finally the one I hear the most – “if only I would not have flashbacks, I would be I would never hurt again and be the happiest person alive”.

Objectives of “if only thinking”

Survivors stay connected to his or her traumatic memories in order to mentally review repeatedly the situations. The objective is to:

1. Analyze what happened in order to figure out what went wrong and elevate his or her blame which was place on him or her by the abuser.

2. Find a way to fix what happened.

3. Ruminate over his or her imperfections that caused the abuse or trauma to happen.

Eliminating "If Only Thinking" mends the Soul
Eliminating "If Only Thinking" mends the Soul | Source


Jane is a 35 year old female who had been diagnosed with Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. She came with a history of severe childhood and adulthood abuse and trauma. Jane reported her inability to get past her painful wounds and stop holding on to her traumatic memories even after many years of therapy. She reported that she felt totally unbalanced, and her life continued to get worse and worse.

Jane's Discovery

Through a custom assignment designed specifically for her issues, she was able to see clearly that she had “if only” thinking, and she was constantly reviewing her past, going over and over her experiences looking for the answers for what happened to her. It was evident through statements like “If only I would have told someone, then the abuse would have stopped.” or “If only I would have been more aware, then I would have seen it coming, and I could have avoid it starting in the first place” or “If only I would have been perfect, then nothing would had happened.”

Her statements were her attempt to discover the answer to “why” and then justify to herself why it occurred … period. Once she recognized that she was into “if only” thinking, she was able to process each “if only” thought, and view each one with a critical eye and determine that the blame was on the perpetrator, not her.

At that point, she was able to forgive herself, begin to accept and love herself which resulted in a defusing in her “if only” thinking. She no longer searched through her memories for the answers and began to live her life.

Take Away

Healing of past wounds does not happened by ruminating in the past to find answers the “whys” that cannot be answered. The “if only” mode of thinking, as a result of unclosed or unresolved abuse or trauma memories or flashbacks, blocks a survivor’s ability to heal his or her wounds. The above “if only” thinking also keeps a survivor in the midst of his or her Post-traumatic Stress symptoms.

It is very common for survivors to get locked on an idea or a thought that if he or she had done something differently, spoken up or been perfect, then the situation would have never happened. These types of thoughts are “diluted” in form. Diluted thoughts stop anyone from living life to its fullest.

What I the true answer? The true answer is to recognize that you recurrently enter into “if only” thinking like “if only I had [this] I would have [or be]….” or “if only [this], I would have [that]”. Then actively work to living in the moment, not in the past or not in the future.

View How To Mute Your Limiting “If Only Thinking”


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    • Dr Bill Tollefson profile image

      Bill Tollefson 2 years ago from Southwest Florida

      Dear lambservant,

      I really appreciate your comments and how honest you were about your struggle.

      A big part of healing is the spiritual aspect. It is very important. All of us who have gone through abuse and trauma have had trouble with the spiritual "whys" at one point or another. I am glad you found you answer with God.

      Thanks again.

    • Dr Bill Tollefson profile image

      Bill Tollefson 2 years ago from Southwest Florida


      Thank you for your comment. I face and deal with this form of thinking on a daily basis with many of my client. I am glad you found positive benefit from this HUB.

      The greatest thing I hope you learned is that you are no longer at someone mercy physically, be careful to not let them remain controlling you in your thoughts.

    • lambservant profile image

      Lori Colbo 2 years ago from Pacific Northwest

      I have been stuck in the "Why?" question in the past. I asked God "why?" The answer was because there is evil in the world. I didn't find that a satisfactory answer at the time. God showed me when I was willing to listen, that He was with me all the time and will help me in healing if I let Him. I have come a long way and much healing. Not everyone is interested in a spiritual answer, but for me it was needed. I don't feel alone, I no longer feel abandoned, I seldom get triggered, but when I do, I know Who to turn to. Therapy of course has helped and trauma groups. I don't ask why anymmore.

      For awhile I did ask some If only questions, but I ran out of gas.

    • profile image

      Linda Kendrick 2 years ago

      Dr. Bill,

      I can totally relate to this article. I think most people can. When I was reading it, my first thought was I think I hold on to this type of thinking because it's an attempt to find some form of control. It feels so powerless to just admit that I had absolutely no control over anything in my past. I know I can't change the past, it's just hard sitting with the idea that I was totally at someone's mercy.