Many people are vulnerable to the allure of “if only.” Some of us utter that expression and inhabit that attitude when things do not go the way we anticipated or expected. We tell ourselves that things would have been better "if only…"
We can create a really long list of things that, had they been different, we would have achieved our desired result.
The phrase “if only” is the spandex of rationalization. It can stretch as far as we need it to in order to accommodate the list of considerations we want to include.
The danger of “if only” is that it may breed too much regret or function to deflect or displace responsibility. At times, the “if only” may attach to a person’s actions in her own past. It can also attach to the actions of another. And finally, it may attach to factors and considerations that are largely beyond our control. An “if only” may be accompanied with regret or resignation, or it may be conjoined with defiance and accusation.
Some cases will help to demonstrate the dynamics of “if only.” Consider a person whose career aspiration is to become a Certified Public Accountant (CPA). She takes all the necessary courses in college and works in the office of a CPA. She studies for the series of exams every CPA must pass. But, she also has a husband and child. Her present income isn’t enough for daycare, so she and her husband decide it would make more financial sense for her to stay home, at least for now. That “at least for now” lasts 15 years.
She may tell herself, “I would be a CPA if only I hadn’t made that decision to stay home.”
In this case, the “if only” attaches to one decision that gets lived for 15 years. It is a pivotal one that becomes the repository for her regret. While she may have loved her time as a full-time mother, she also mourns the loss of a career goal. And the further removed that dream is from her reality, the greater her regret may become.
This case also provides an instance of an “if only” attaching to considerations that are far beyond a person's control. She may believe, “If only daycare expenses hadn’t been so great that they outstripped my income," or, "If only my husband earned more, I would have stayed at my job and passed my exams because that would have made the best financial sense.” The reality is that daycare expenses are often well beyond the reach of many people and few employers offer onsite or affordable options. If only the economy was not organized in a way that forced some people out of the paid work force.
“If only” can also be hurled at others in the hopes of deflecting responsibility. An active alcoholic might say to his partner, “If only you weren’t so emotionally needy that you put everything on me. Drinking is the only way to get away from you and your neediness. If only you’d get more of a life, I wouldn’t drink.”
The accusatory form of “if only” is also common in relationships of abuse. An abuser claims—and may genuinely believe—that he would not have hit his partner, “if only she had kept her mouth shut and kept the kids quiet, too. She just kept pushing and I finally snapped.”
Making the “if only” accusation is one of the quickest ways to offload responsibility for one’s own decisions and actions. A person might tell herself that he or she really isn’t the author of those actions because another person made him drink, or made her lash out, etc. Or the rationalization may be, “I wasn’t really myself because I was overwhelmed by resentment or anger. The resentment and anger made me drink or hit. But that’s not really who I am.”
This person will be unwilling to take responsibility for his actions.
There is a positive role of “if only,” in some cases. An “if only” may alert us to something we have lost or compromised, which in turn may prompt us to experience some regret. Regret in life is inevitable and, in some cases, healthy. If we’ve gone down one path and regret it, that may cause us to choose differently in the future. Regret may prompt us to do certain things differently when given the opportunity. Regret is always backward-looking, but can have profound effect on the present and future if we learn from it. The woman who wanted to be a CPA may even decide that she will go after that goal now.
The challenge is to keep “if only” thinking in proper perspective and scope. An “if only” world is what philosophers would call a “counter-factual" one. That is to say, an imaginary or possible world that differs from the actual world, in which things are different from how they truly are in fact.
A person who lives too much in the world of “if only” faces a significant risk. Taken to great lengths, an attitude of “if only” keeps a person from living his or her actual life and instead ties him or her more to a future possible life that may never be.