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Is "If Only" Thinking a Barrier to Fulfillment?

Updated on February 2, 2018
Dr Bill Tollefson profile image

My passion is to inspire and coach people to achieve what they want to get out of life.

Change your thinking and change your life.


Hindsight can be Dangerous

Ever been reminded of something, reflect on it, and then say, “what could have happened differently? or what did I do wrong?” 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 different.

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 become wounded Souls, who carry baggage for years long after the initial wounding. Why? One reason is that survivors are attempting to find, figure out and rationalize a “why?” for what happened to them. Answers to questions such as … why me, why the situation, what went wrong, what did I do wrong, or who's to blame are strongly sought after.

If Only Thoughts are a Style of Thinking

Not achieving an answer cause survivors to not let go of their past or process the painful memories of those situations without it. The memories are held onto because it is thought the answers are 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 misleading paths.

The tuning into this type of “thinking”, which is commonly used to explore and inspect recollections. Survivor's use this mode of thinking to answer unanswerable questions. This style will be referred to if only thinking". This thinking internal comes across as "if I would have (or had) only done [this or that]” ____ would not have happened".

This "if only" style of thinking is an extremely common mode of thought across the survivor population. This tactical mode of thinking is mainly directed at his or her performance and perfectionism.

This style of thinking is an extremely common mode of thought across the abuse, trauma, and combat population. This tactical mode of thinking is mainly directed at his or her performance during the situation and perfectionism (why it went wrong).

Closer Look at “If Only" Thinking

I came across “if only” thinking in the majority of the survivors I have coached over the years. In his or her post-trauma life, most survivors have the thought, “if only I would have….” In his or her mind, he or she is convinced if this or her answer could be found, then the result would be positive. Like; “If I found my answer, then I would be happy and comfortable with myself. Also, I would be fulfilled, satisfied and successful in my life.” But once they understand that an answer can't be found to his or her past, then strong disappointing emotions surface.

Here are some 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 most powerful 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.”

All of these if only thoughts statements above brought on disappointment, emotional reactions, and self-degrading behaviors.

Objectives of “if only thinking”

Survivors stay connected to his or her traumatic memories in order to mentally review repeatedly what happened to them. So repeated reviewing of the past through traumatic memory objective is to:

1. Analyze what happened in order to figure out what went wrong and elevate his or her blame which was placed 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.

Change Your Thinking, Change Your life

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


Jane, a 35-year-old female, who had been diagnosed with Complex Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. She had a history of severe child abuse as well as adulthood abuse and trauma. Jane reported she had been unable to get past her painful wounds. She said she could not stop continually reviewing and reliving her past traumatic memories even after many years of therapy. She reported that she felt totally unbalanced emotionally, mentally and physically. She stated that her life continued to spiral down getting worse and worse.

Jane's Discovery and Healing

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

Her behavior was her attempt to discover the answer to “why” and then justify to herself why it occurred. Once she recognized 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 the blame should be 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 ever again and began to live her life.

Take Away

Healing of past wounds does not happen by ruminating in the past through reflection by way of flashbacks or ruminating constantly to find answers to “why” things happened the way they did. Generally, those questions cannot be answered.

“If only” mode of thinking occurs as a result of un-closed or unresolved abuse or trauma memories or flashbacks. A survivor’s ability to heal his or her wounds becomes blocked by if only thinking as well as keep the survivor locked in his or her Post-traumatic Stress symptoms.

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

What is 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]”. So to heal one must disconnect from the past (flashbacks and memories), and actively work on living in the moment. Methods such as Intuitive Breathing, exercise, and meditation can facilitate connecting with the moment and healing.

View How To Mute Your Limiting “If Only Thinking

© 2014 Bill Tollefson


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    • Dr Bill Tollefson profile image

      Bill Tollefson 3 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 3 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 3 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 3 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.