Moving past “if only” thinking

Don’t let two little words stand between you and the relationships you’d like, the career satisfaction you desire and the personal achievement you dream of


It is human nature to want what we don’t have believing that is the path to happiness, contentment and peace.

As psychotherapists who work with clients afflicted with depression, anxiety, trauma and relationship discord, statements we commonly hear along those lines include:

  • If only my spouse appreciated me more, I’d be more attentive and giving at home;
  • If only the world was safer, I could enjoy my time off work;
  • If only I made more money, my family would be happier and more cohesive;
  • If only my kid’s activities weren’t so time-consuming, I’d have time for friends, families and hobbies;
  • If only I wasn’t so tired when I come home from work, I would exercise and eat right;
  • If only the job saw how much I give up in my personal life, I’d be less cynical;
  • If only I could go on vacation, I would be more motivated at work.
“If only” statements signify that someone feels a sense of hopelessness over their immediate environment while feeling helpless to implement solutions that will bring about happiness. (Photo/PoliceOne)
“If only” statements signify that someone feels a sense of hopelessness over their immediate environment while feeling helpless to implement solutions that will bring about happiness. (Photo/PoliceOne)

When we hear “if only” statements from clients, we know a clinical depression or anxiety is likely lurking in the background, whether it be mild, moderate, or significant.

“If only” statements signify that someone feels a sense of hopelessness over their immediate environment while feeling helpless to implement solutions that will bring about happiness. “If only” statements let us know emotional fatigue has set in and that people need guidance in developing solutions to their problems.

How “if only” thinking hurts us

Becoming stuck in “if only” thinking has several harmful consequences:

  • It creates a false hope and belief in a magic bullet that may or may not come. If the dreamed-of magic bullet shows, yet nothing improves, hopelessness is the logical next step.
  • It gives permission to deflect responsibility and apportion blame. It’s not your fault or responsibility if things aren’t as you hoped, so how could you possibly be expected to fix it?
  • It assigns responsibility for your happiness and satisfaction – and blame when it fails to materialize – onto others who may not even know they are considered part of the problem or solution. When your problems become the responsibility of others, friction and distance follow. This may or may not manifest in issues at work, but certainly will when the person you’ve entrusted your personal happiness to is a family member or friend. This is more than any one person can be responsible for, yet countless people have this role thrust onto them – unwittingly – every day.
  • “If only” statements put us in a victim stance versus seeking out obtainable solutions that can be implemented in manageable and measurable goals.
  • It establishes your locus of control as exterior rather than interior.

Internal and external loci of control

The psychological concept of locus of control holds that most people will exhibit one of two beliefs about their ability to influence personal outcomes.

People who believe in and operate from an external locus of control tend to see events and outcomes in their lives as dependent upon luck or fate, or the actions of outsiders who influence or control their experience. People with an external locus of control generally believe they have little opportunity or ability to influence more favorable outcomes.

Despite acceding to fate, these people tend to experience greater anxiety than those with an internal locus of control who attribute success and outcomes largely to their own efforts and ability. Even though they understand success, failure and the responsibility for both fall on them, those with an internal locus of control experience less stress and worry about their choices and outcomes.

Moving past “if only” thinking

Here are some easy steps to conduct a self-examination that will enable you to move past your “if onlys”:

  1. Do a self-inventory. Ask yourself how you feel (yes, we used the “F” word) three times a day: “Do I feel happy, sad, angry, frustrated, or stressed?” Do this for a week to find out what emotions occupy most of your day. You can also track your mood through phone apps such as iMood Journal or Daylio.
  2. Listen to your word choices. Our words reflect our mood and our beliefs. Do you hear yourself blaming others or circumstances as to why you may feel unhappy, malcontent, or anxious?
  3. Begin a plan of action based upon areas identified as sources of anxiety, sadness, or frustration. Anxiety sources generally fall into one of five categories: financial, professional, personal relationships, emotional/physical health, or spiritual health. Begin setting goals that are obtainable and focus on the long haul, for slow and steady wins the race. Setting unrealistic goals, such as losing 15lbs in two weeks or eliminating all debt in too short a time, sets you up for failure and increased stress. If you have difficulty setting goals or making them feasible, there are plenty of articles online that can assist you in this process.
  4. Seek out social support from positive people. Make your goals known; as you own and talk about them, you will gain motivation. You may also find others will join you in your pursuit.
  5. Remember that motivation is not a feeling, it is rooted in action. It is what we do. If we only do what we felt in the moment, none of us would exercise, eat healthy, pay bills, or willingly take on our other adulting responsibilities. When we put good behaviors into action, good feelings will follow.
  6. If you still find you are focusing on the “if only” statements, and happiness seems out of reach, it is time to seek out a licensed mental health professional to help you get “unstuck” and moving forward. Often a few sessions will get you back to the life you desire, for small changes can make big differences.

If more officers would act to protect their emotional well-being, the malcontented cop would be more myth than reality. Acknowledging our emotional difficulties while placing emphasis on well-being is the first line of defense against depression, anxiety, marital and family discord, burnout, addictions and even officer suicides. If an angry or sad mood becomes persistent for too long and is not treated with talk therapy and/or medication management, hopelessness and thoughts of death can creep in and turn into actions.

Our challenge to you is to take control of your “if only” statements and turn them into positive actions that will lead to an overall sense of contentment.

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