It’s an innocent sounding word, isn’t it?
But, I realised recently that this one little word is ruining my life.
I realised that I was using it in two separate (and equally negative) ways:
The “If Only” Problem
When I’m feeling depressed and low, I’m thinking, “If only I could just make it to the next part of my life, I’d be happy.”
This could manifest as surviving exams and finishing school when I was 15, which felt incredibly stressful. Or it could be getting through university when I had a boyfriend back home a hundred miles away (who isn’t my husband now—surprise, surprise). Or it could be in every job I’ve ever had in which I’ve wasted all my energy thinking that if only I could get to that next level (executive from assistant, manager from executive, director from manager) that this would suddenly make me feel content and as though I was “good enough.”
The “What If” Scary Thoughts
Conversely, when I’m struck with anxiety, I’m thinking, “But what if the next part of my life sucks? What if I can’t do it? What if I’m ill? What if I don’t have any money? What if he or she dies?”
The realisation I had recently hit me like a ton of bricks: I’ve been thinking both of these “if only” and “what if” thoughts every day of my adult life.
I was fortunate to have the opportunity to take a year off work and go travel recently. This really should have felt like a huge achievement that I’d been able to save enough money to give it all up and just leave it all behind.
But, while my husband and I had an amazing time, my “if only” and “what if” thinking didn’t stop. In fact, if anything, it got even louder.
What if we were bankrupting ourselves with all this frivolous enjoyment? What if I’d stuffed up my career opportunities and couldn’t get a job when we arrived home again? And if only I was back with my family and settled into a house, I’d be happier.
Then, there’s guilt. How dare I feel like I’d be happier when settled at home while I was having such incredible experiences on my travels! And why should little old me be able to travel the world when there are others who are suffering and struggling to earn a living all around the globe?
One day when I was staring out of the window on a long bus journey somewhere in Bolivia, as usual thinking about the future, I had a “this is ridiculous” moment. I knew I was ruining the present moment with the constant guilt, the “what ifs,” and the “if onlys.”
From that moment, for the rest of my long bus journeys, I went on a mission to change my thinking and my attitude toward happiness.
A couple of things I’ve read in my search to feel better have really stood out. The first is this emotive quote from Marianne Williamson in her book, “A Return To Love.” I’m not a particularly religious person, but this quote had a profound effect on me:
“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, ‘Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?’ Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”
What really struck me was this idea of not playing small and feeling guilty about feeling happy or frightened of our own abilities.
I’ve also really enjoyed the books of Gretchen Rubin, a researcher who focuses on defining happiness. She makes the point that happy people tend to be more giving and loving to others than unhappy people. This definitely helped me to feel less guilty about feeling happy.
I am certainly not fully cured of my “what if” and “if only” thoughts, nor of my feelings of guilt. But by being conscious of them, I’m getting better and quicker at correcting my thoughts and bringing myself back to the present moment.
Every time an “if” comes into my mind—whichever version it is—I try to think to myself, “What is my current situation? What can I do right now to feel good? What can I be grateful for?”
I am learning to take each day as it comes. I’m learning to do little things to make me feel better. And, I’m learning to focus on my own happiness more without feeling guilty about it.
Because, while it’s true that we need to look out for others and take on life’s challenges—perhaps more than ever in these times of strange and difficult global politics—we also shouldn’t feel guilty about taking care of ourselves and enjoying the present moment either!
Author: Amy Lauder
Image: Garry Knight/Flickr
Editor: Leah Sugerman
Copy Editor: Lieselle Davidson
Social Editor: Waylon Lewis