Is "If Only" Thinking Destroying You?
Change your thinking and change your life.
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.
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.
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.
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.