The danger of ‘if only’ thinking


I spent a lot of my childhood peering through other people’s windows, both literally and metaphorically, wishing that my life was more like theirs.

Wishing I lived in their house.

Wishing I had their parents.

Wishing I had their clothes.

Wishing I had her body.

Wishing I had her face or her hair.

Wishing I had her name.

I actually told my primary school teacher once that I’d changed my name to Karen because I wanted to be Karen, a pretty blonde schoolmate of mine who, through my nine-year-old eyes, seemed to have the perfect looks and the perfect life.

I remember telling a barefaced lie to the teacher, saying that I’d filled in the forms and jumped through the legal loopholes and I was now, officially, Karen Baldwin. I started to write Karen Baldwin on my school work. I was a good girl so I must have wanted to be Karen quite desperately to tell fibs.

I feel sad remembering that.

I didn’t want to be me.

I didn’t want my life.

I thought I’d be happier as someone else or with someone else’s life.

Many years on and despite so much change and personal development work – thanks to which I am now happily married, living a pretty cool life by the beach, working at something I love and writing books – I’m sorry to say that I spend too much time looking at other people’s lives, wondering if I’d be happier if I had what that person had.

In other words, living in the ‘if only’.

It’s a dangerous place to be.

It’s a drain on my precious time, energy and resources.

It’s addictive.

And, like any addiction, if I keep it up, it’ll rob me of joy, make my life unmanageable and, ultimately, drive me and those around me up the wall.

I know for sure that I’ll look back in 10 or 20 years time and think …

‘If only I’d lived in the present.

If only I’d enjoyed the moment.

If only I’d appreciated all that I had, all that I was and all that my body could do for me.

If only I’d put my energy into changing the things I could change rather than ruminating about the things that I couldn’t.’

My ‘if only’ thinking gets especially triggered when I see what, on the outside, looks like the perfect family down on the beach, which I see quite often living here on the Dorset coast. Beautiful mum, good-looking dad, gorgeous kids and a dog, laughing together at the water’s edge. It gets triggered even more when spritely grandparents rock up to lend support, followed by another perfect looking mum and dad with their kids. It’s even worse when the second family shows up on a boat.

Buckets, spades, sandwiches, smiles and Prosecco.

So I stare at them and ponder what my life would be like if I had kids, naturally assuming that it would be better, that I’d be happier, more content, more fulfilled, less in my head; that I’d feel a greater sense of belonging, more valid, more valuable, more part of the human race.

I have no idea whether this would be true. It could be that I’d be stressed out, anxious, exhausted, depleted and longing for some peace and quiet. And it could be that even if I had a perfect looking family, I’d still carry the same wound inside – the wound that makes me look everywhere for an elusive sense of belonging; the wound that makes me question my life even when it’s going well; the wound that leaves me feeling never enough, despite so much good stuff.

Who knows?

We’ll never know.

But what I do know is that I’ll waste my life and miss out on the joy of the present if I spend my time living in my head, in the ‘if only’ or the ‘what if’.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for acknowledging our sadness about the things that haven’t come to pass, about the desires and dreams that may have died. It’s so important to allow our feelings to the surface. If we push them down or stuff them down (for example, with food, as I used to do), they’ll get stuck. They’ll turn murky and noxious. They’ll come out sideways, in angry swipes at ourselves or someone else, usually those closest to us (my poor husband!).

Plus, grief comes and goes. The feelings come and go. We can’t grieve on demand. It might hit us when we’re least expecting it. We deserve to be gentle with ourselves.

But what I’m now noticing, more than ever before, is how addictive and damaging this ‘if only’ thinking can be, thanks, in large part, to my psychotherapist Paul Sunderland, who draws my attention to this in our sessions and who encourages me to challenge this behaviour.

‘If only’ thinking takes me away from myself. It takes me away from reality and off into a fantasy world, which was, of course, its purpose when I was young. ‘If only’ thinking was a survival mechanism back when I was small, but it’s long past it’s sell-by date. It doesn’t serve me anymore.

And I don’t want to look back in 10 or 20 years with regret because I didn’t appreciate what I had and was always longing for something else. I don’t want to look back and ponder all the things I could have done if I hadn’t spent my time dreaming about the ‘what if’.

My desire is to accept, embrace and cherish my life as it is today.

My desire is to move forwards, not be hampered by looking back.

My desire is to make the most of everything I have and everything I am, rather than watch my energy drain away as I keep wishing I was something I’m not.

My desire is to be free of the ‘if only’.

How am I going to make this happen?

I have three ideas for now (no doubt more will come):


Although I’ve known for years that a daily gratitude practice is helpful, I’ve never actually stuck to one. It’s been a long time since I regularly wrote lists of things I’m grateful for. So I’m going to do that. I’m going to endeavour to write my gratitude list every day.


I’m going to aim to have better boundaries around my thinking. I need to bottom line rumination and ‘if only’ musings. When my mind strays into that territory, I promise to bring it back to the now, to the moment. What steps can I take today to fully embrace and enjoy my life?

I did this yesterday on a hike back from the beach. I was walking down a beautiful pathway, worrying about something that hadn’t happened and was probably never going to happen, when I noticed what I was doing.

No more, I thought. No more living in my head and missing the moment. I brought myself back to the here and now by observing the green of the leaves and the brown of the bark and seeing the sunlight shine through the tree canopy.

And it worked. It really worked.

Seeing myself as a spiritual being, united with other beings.

I’ve been doing Deepak Chopra’s 21-Day Abundance Meditation Challenge and the meditation that spoke to me the most was about the unity of life. We are all one, part of a whole, connected to each other. If I can hold on to that, Deepak says, the concepts of rivalry and competition will disappear. I believe that ‘if only’ thinking will disappear too. Because we are all one. We are all connected. Children and mothers and grandparents and childless women and men and childfree people and those who struggle and those who don’t, those who have boats and big houses and those who don’t. We are all connected. We are all one. There is no difference.

If I can believe this, truly and wholeheartedly embrace this, I can free myself from the trap of ‘if only’ thinking and truly inhabit my beautiful life.

I wonder, dear reader, what’s your experience of ‘if only’ thinking?

Is it a drain on your happiness?

Does it steal joy from your life?

Does it hijack your ability to be present?

And how can you free yourself from its trap?




One more ‘if only’ …

If only I had more than 50 reviews on Amazon on my How to Fall in Love book, I could submit it to a promotional platform so that it could be more widely distributed! I’m at 41.

Thank you so much to those of you who’ve left a review. It really is wonderful to read them and so humbling that so many people have taken the time to write one. If you’d like to contribute to my efforts to reach more people with my words, you can leave a review on Amazon here.

And if you’d like to know what I’m up to – courses, retreats and so forth – sign up to my regular Love Letters on my website,

Thank you, as always, for reading and for your support x

About Katherine Baldwin

I am a writer, coach, midlife mentor, motivational speaker and the author of How to Fall in Love - A 10-Step Journey to the Heart. I specialise in coaching women and men to have healthy relationships with themselves so that they can form healthy and loving romantic relationships and lead authentic, fulfilling lives. I coach 1:1, lead workshops and host retreats.
This entry was posted in Addiction, Childless, Eating disorders, Happiness, Love, Recovery, Relationships, Self-Acceptance, Women and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The danger of ‘if only’ thinking

  1. I was just talking about “if onlys “ yesterday ! I just discovered your blog and I’m really glad I did ! Can’t wait to read more from you ❤️

  2. Fiona R says:

    Another brilliant post that really resonates with me. Thank you very much. F x

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