Letting go of the "if only" mindset

If only my company would go public, then I could finally relax.

If only I found the right person to marry, then I’d feel safe.

If only I had a third child, then I’d be happy.

If only I got that promotion. If only I got into business school. If only my house were bigger. If only he loved me.

Have you ever found yourself thinking this way? I call it the “if-only” mindset. It’s normal to have these thoughts, but believing deeply that something needs to happen before we can enjoy our lives can create tension and despair, and prevent us from truly being with what’s going on in the present.

When I was in my early thirties, I thought that if only I got married and had kids, everything would be OK. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit, I obsessed over how happy I would be in my fairy tale idea of marriage. This wasn't helpful to my decision-making in my relationship with my then-boyfriend (and future husband), and served as an escape from painful thoughts and feelings.

Ultimately, my marriage ended in divorce. As I look back, I realize that my intense desire to be married clouded my judgment and prevented me from noticing the challenges in our relationship.

Life doesn’t always look like a fairytale

Many of us grow up watching Disney films and reading fairy tales: Cinderella always lands her prince; Jack gets his golden eggs; and Little Red Riding Hood escapes the wolf. But reality can sometimes be painful, filled with disillusionment and loss. Both sweetness and sadness are part of the richness of life. I eventually learned that it doesn’t work very well to put real living on hold until some mythical future event occurs, and that there is no perfect path to fulfillment. When we focus exclusively on the future, we miss out on this richness.

Are we wired to dwell on the future?

We humans may be genetically coded to imagine and plan for an uncertain future in order to protect ourselves. But as we’ve evolved, this programming can, more often than not, get in our way. By over-focusing on an ideal future, we mentally try to control the uncertainty in front of us. But failing to accept what life is offering right now leads to suffering. 

This sense that we must have X in order to feel Y is part of being human. But by understanding it better we can mitigate the suffering it can cause.

“Sometimes focusing on the future provides a way to escape from painful feelings in the present. This isn’t a problem if you do it every now and then. But when escape becomes a way of life, it can get you into trouble.

Letting go of the “if-only” mindset in your dating life

Here are some strategies you can use if you’re struggling with this mindset in your dating life.

Try to bring serenity to your reality

Practice changing what can be changed, accepting what cannot be changed, and developing the wisdom to know the difference. This means giving yourself permission to surrender to life as it unfolds and acknowledging that some things are beyond your control. Try to accept your circumstances as they are, not as you wish they were.

Consider this Maya Angelou quote: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them, the first time.” It can be hard to accept that the person you’re in a relationship with is not the person you had hoped they would be. Rather than making excuses for them, justifying their behavior, and wasting time and energy agonizing, you can practice accepting that they are who they are. You can’t change them, but you can accept them – or accept that they may not be right for you.

Explore the purpose of your mindset

Sometimes focusing on the future provides a way to escape from painful feelings in the present. This isn’t a problem if you do it every now and then. But when escape becomes a way of life, it can get you into trouble.

Ask yourself if the purpose of your if-only mindset is to help you avoid anxiety about your relationship. If it is, you can turn your attention to sorting through your feelings instead of trying to escape them. As uncomfortable as it is, your pain may be your best ally in making a decision about the kind of person you really want to be with.

Hold your wishes lightly and realize you have a choice

We don’t get to control what shows up in our minds, but we can pay attention to our thoughts and decide how we want to relate to them. We can try shifting our focus away from “I’m not OK unless I have a relationship” to “I can notice what is working in my life.”

Practice noticing when you’re wishing “If only I were married,” and question whether it's helpful to you. For example, you could say to yourself, “There I go again. Wishing, not being present,” and take it as a cue to become more mindful.

You can hold your wish to have an intimate partner as an important value and a deep desire. But you don’t have to cling to the thought of marriage or a relationship as what you must have to make you happy. You can choose to obsess and ruminate over finding the right partner right now, or you can focus on being OK as you are right now.

Now, it may actually be the case that you would be happier if you had X, so I’m not recommending that you stop yourself from wishing or acting on your values to get what you want. The idea is to hold your desires in a different way so that you can put them in perspective, be open to what’s actually happening, and lessen the struggle for something you don’t have control over.

It's often hard to be with reality as it is, without wishing it were different. But if you’re willing to examine your feelings, instead of escaping into the if-only mindset, you may discover that they can guide you to living a more authentic, grounded life – one that unfolds in the here and now.


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DISCLAIMER: The content of this blog is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.