How to overcome the “If only” game

Going through rough times can make us question things in our lives, a habit borne out of utter frustration, exhaustion and sadness.

“If only I had grown up differently with different parents in a different part of the world then I’d have less problems in my life, be more successful, could easily do what other people seem to be able to manage so effortlessly.”

“If only I had gotten that job I applied for, had not failed my exam, if my health were better, if I had found the love of my life, then…what? 

Then my life would be so much better and I’d be happy, had no problems…”

Really?

Sounds as if there was a parallel universe somewhere, pain-free and perfect with endless happiness, and we just didn’t land in it by taking a wrong turn. Or even worse, something completely outside of our control – call it fate or bad luck – decided to drop us into the miserable universe. And so we are dwelling in the past, imagining what could have been. What we lost or presumably missed out on. Wasting our time by thinking “if only”. 

Not so long ago I had a conversation along these lines with my mother about the difficulties my father encountered in his job decades ago. Difficulties which “would not have occurred if this job had been in a big city rather than in that small village he worked, where so much was only about politics”. As if she thought of it as a cloud somehow dimming his otherwise impressive achievements. 

Who you are meant to be evolves from where you are right now. Learning to appreciate your lessons, mistakes and setbacks as stepping stones for the future, is a clear sign you are moving into the right direction. (Oprah Winfrey)

Whatever path we decide to embark on, it always comes with a mixed package of joy, sorrow and clouds. There is always a chance that it might not turn out as expected. We cannot expect things to be easy, and there is certainly no such thing like a perfect life.

A difficult experience however, does no de-value your chosen path in life, because in fact, it’s the difficult things that determine who we become.

And that’s what we usually tend to forget: adversity actually makes us who we are. Always. 

Without it we would not evolve in life. Like it or not – it is the painful things that shape us and make us more resilient. 

Sure, you lose something, but you gain something else for it. Living through a tough experience, you transcend into another person, thereby coming closer to who you are supposed to be. 

It is of course, hard to see it that way, particularly when you are right in the middle of it. And it might sometimes feel impossible to even see the tiniest bit of light. 

We seem to have a reflex going into denial, fighting against it in fear and frustration, which is useless as we cannot make what’s happened undone. We cannot change the past. And over a lot of things we simply do not have any control. Like other people’s minds and their decisions, luck or chance, accidents, illnesses, disasters…

Complaining about life treating us unfairly and that we have done nothing wrong to deserve it, will not change anything either. Life is not fair, there is just this notion in our head that it should be. Also contrary to what some of us believe: what happens to us is not retribution meted out by a higher force to punish us. John Kabat-Zinn calls our daily struggles “full catastrophe living” which I find a very fitting description of human existence.

We only make it harder for ourselves by thinking “I do not want this – where is the reverse button in my life?”.

So, what’s the better option? Stop fighting it.

Don’t mourn your loss in a way as if you were never able to recover. As if you had fallen down into a hole and things would inevitably get even worse from now on.That’s not what it is like. 

You need to mourn for sure, but when you are done you will still be there. The earth will not have opened up and swallowed you. 

And then you get back up.

Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do. (Brené Brown)

Giving up this struggle is an advice I find very difficult to take myself. Finding the trust and confidence to go through a bad experience while waiting for the pain to subside and learning to live with it often feels like a tough order. More than we can (or are willing to) take at that very moment.

It might take some time before we can arrive there. Re-visiting painful time periods and events in my own life years later made me realize how much I have learned and grown since then and how they made me turn into a different direction. How some of them even brought me closer to the point where I am right now. 

Without them it might have been easier – sure, but it also would have taken longer to learn a lesson I needed to learn. Some doors apparently were not meant for me to open, but others did instead.

Maybe it is about re-arranging things in our mind in hindsight, to make them fall into place, and – more importantly – to make our peace with them as part of our story.

Life is about the journey to understand yourself. Stay curious.

The challenge of mindfulness

To know that I have done enough and the best I could when the day draws to a close is important. For work and also private matters.

Expecting too much of ourselves is quite common and a recipe for making us unhappy. There is always something each day that falls through the grid making me feel guilty once I realize it. Something that I  have forgotten for whatever reason, wondering whether my sub-conscience mind is trying to tell me something.

  • That task from my action list that I still did not get around doing.
  • That call to a friend I have been thinking about for a week, or the letter I wanted to write still lying half-finished on my desk.
  • That matter needing clarification with a colleague. And so on…

Of course, with a full agenda it is bound to happen, and I am far more aware of it now than I was in the past. Getting older I am becoming more conscious of having limited time. Juggling so many tasks feels exhausting, and cramming more and more activities into my day is not going to work. 

You cannot stop the waves, but you can learn to surf. – Jon Kabat-Zinn

What helps me is to acknowledge and remind myself at the end of the day how much I have actually accomplished and learned. Things that brought me a step further, interesting insights which gave me a good impulse, support I could give to others. Instead of easily dismissing it as “normal and not so important” I’m actively shifting my focus to it.

The rest can wait until tomorrow. After all, the sky is not going to fall down on me if I am not dealing with something immediately. Funnily enough, I gave exactly that advice to my manager this week;-)

It also helps to realize that we are not alone with such thoughts. Others struggle in a similar manner, trying to find their way through their very own jungle on a daily basis.

A good reminder of that I got yesterday when listening to a video panel discussion on “How to find a good work-life-balance”  in my company, with colleagues sharing their own experiences about how they are dealing with a big workload, managing family life in pandemic times, having too many conference calls while consciously trying to stay balanced and being mindful. Big expectations limited by reality which regularly bites. 

It was like looking into the mirror making me nod in agreement and smile,  recognizing my own behaviour and my own mechanisms dealing with daily life. And it made me realize how many things I actually handle well already, and where there is still some room for improvement. 

What I took away was nothing new, but an important reinforcement and encouragement: 

  • Being compassionate and kind with ourselves, managing our energy in a good way, listening to what our body is telling us and what our heart needs – and not ignoring it. Because if we do our body will pull the brakes sooner than we think, simply to get some rest. 
  • Acknowledging that we just have bad days but there is no need to beat ourselves up for it. It is part of life, it happens but neither will it last forever nor does it put us in question as a person. We need to manage our own expectations toward ourselves, and take it one day at a time.
  • Saying no. We always have a choice. Decline a call or ask for more time to complete a task. Setting boundaries is essential. Yes, we do have the right to do this. And it’s a way of taking control of our own agenda, our precious time. We are the ones who prioritise what we do and how. It takes courage and effort though, being conscious at all times that this decision is ours to take. It is our own responsibility. Don’t blame it on your boss or the person putting a request to you.
  • Prioritise and set aside time for taking a break, spending time with your family, doing sports or taking a nap, going for a walk etc. This is important recreation and we need it to recharge. Slow down.

Compassion for others begins with kindness to ourselves. – Pema Chödrön

An important message, especially for junior colleagues to set the record straight. It is so easy to fall into the trap to responding quickly each time, neglecting oneself’s needs and regretting it later, feeling exhausted and stressed out. Neither our private life nor work has to be like this.

Essentially, it is about feeling in sync with yourself. It is not an automatism we achieve but rather a constant learning process leading to more consciousness. It is a very individual matter finding out what is good for you and then do it. If it’s going for a walk in nature, enjoying a good meal, doing creative work or reading a book, having a conversation with a friend, listening to an inspiring podcast, taking time to do yoga or sitting still in meditation… 

And it certainly takes practice. It’s never a given.

My favourite remedy is going outside to visit my friends’ sheep which are grazing in front of my house. Breathing fresh air, the wind in my face, connecting with these peaceful animals who know me for so many years now is pure enjoyment every time.

We take care of the future best by taking care of the present now. – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Whatever helps you to get you back into balance is good. Sometimes it could even be a breathing exercise to calm our ever busy mind. Integrating some of these elements into my day helps to keep me grounded, and I notice quickly if I fail to do them, by feeling uneasy and even angry with myself.

Interestingly, when I started working for my current company more than 20 years ago, there was no awareness at all around this topic. Luckily, times have changed and the focus on wellbeing and mindfulness has increased in the past years, recently of course, even more, amplified through the pandemic and its impact on the way we work. 

A good example by the way, how even a negative event can bring about positive change.

Take good care of yourselves, wherever you are.

Interested to learn more about mindfulness? Check out the mindfulness chapter on my resources page.