If Onlies and What-ifs: Harnessing the Power of Choice in Our Lives

For the last several months, I’ve been writing about letting go and moving forward; getting unstuck and reuniting with lost dreams.  I’ve also been writing about heroes and victims and the power of words and the stories we tell ourselves and others.

In this vein, I’ve been thinking about how we often find ourselves lamenting if onlies.  “If only he had been willing to change…”  “If only I had more time to finish my projects…” “If only I had this or if only he/she/they had done that…”  “If only I could…”  We torment ourselves in any number of ways – whining, musing, wondering, yet staying stuck all the same.  If onlies are about those things over which we feel powerless to change, whether people or events outside of ourselves or our own (mis)perceived personal limitations or struggles.  They are about playing the victim and avoiding personal responsibility.  They are the excuses we allow ourselves and they reek of fear, apathy and defeat.  “If-only” is dis-empowerment at its core.

Let’s try a different phrase on for size.  Let’s play around with “what if…”  Not the what-ifs that breed worry and inaction, but a different kind of what-if.  The kind of question that breeds hope and the belief in what’s possible by asking, “What if instead of allowing ourselves to feel victimized and stuck, we made a different choice?  A bold choice…an affirming and fully present choice?”  “What if we accepted what is, instead of focusing our energy on what could have been, should have been, or might have been?”  “What if we chose to act, instead of react?”

If onlies suggest that we are not happy with our present and sometimes that is true.  We believe that events and other people or sometimes even ourselves, are the cause of our misery and that we have been dealt a bad hand.   Maybe you’ve made a mistake; maybe someone or something has hurt you; maybe you have a physical ailment that you blame for holding you back.  Life is not always kind or fair, it’s true.  But once we truly accept that fact, we discover that even amidst the rubble, there is great beauty and joy to be found in this life, too, though you have to be willing to look past limitations to the possibilities; you have to be willing to shift from passivity to accountable action.

If you’ve been dealt a bad hand or you’ve played your cards poorly, you still have choices.  You have the choice of attitude (which, by the way, often shapes our actions (or inaction)).  You have the choice of playing your hand as-is, or folding your cards.  You can quit, change, act, rise-up, or simply surrender in peace.  But victimhood, should you choose to stay stuck, is a choice as well.

I’m curious…

How do the phrases “if only” and “what if” shape your life?  Are they catalysts for change or an excuse to stay stuck?  Do you own your choices, including your attitude, or do you resign yourself to playing the role of passive victim?  If you could eliminate the phrase “if only…” from your life, what impact might that have?  Do you routinely look for and find the gems hidden amidst the rubble, or believe that the rubble is all that there is?

8 thoughts on “If Onlies and What-ifs: Harnessing the Power of Choice in Our Lives

  1. I totally have to answer that question, I love your thoughts here Sharon, very inspiring. I know that dark hole as I stumble into it on occasion, along with “if only” while caught in weak moments of desire, self-pity or jealousy and want, and I think it has been “what if” that has come to my rescue.

    What if I use “if only” to my benefit, take the raw words, (or paint:) pull them apart to give me inspiration and empowerment. Take the conjunction and adverb (two primary colors) and use them to create a new colour for my canvas of life.

    What if I take “if only” and put them together differently and inspire myself:

    “If only” I had been the one to say this or that, changes to- “Only if” I am the one to say this or that will I see the change I want.

    “If only” I had not been dealt such a bad hand changes to- Only if I look to the lesson held within the hand (myself) will I change the outcome.

    “If only” I had not lost this person, everything would be different, changes to- Only if I understand what lost means can I move forward to a new beginning and different.

    The inevitability that life as we know it has an end should drive all of us to take those “If only” moments that we all have and turn them around, stop looking to the past for a bus that is in front of you.

    Take the paint and paint over, recreate. If you fall in with “If only” grab them, pull them apart and paint a new picture of “Only if”: I change, do, help, think, say, believe, smile, laugh, forgive,follow, lead, inspire, paint, sing, communicate, interact, listen,create, will I live today.

    Thanks so much for making my heart sing:)


    1. Simon,

      As a person who adores word play, I absolutely LOVE THIS! I love the idea of turning around “if only” into “only if…”, moving from dis-empowerment to empowerment; from despair to hope; from victim to hero. In doing so, change becomes possible and we are once again able to move and create again.

      Your words and thoughts here are beautiful and inspiring, as always.



  2. Simon,

    ok, we’re official fan boys of Sharon 🙂 Your response if #awesome. I also love the word play. Very powerful. And hard to do. Just this morning, as I was reading this post even, I was caught on some “if only”. I will now train myself to intercept If only with only if… The process shifts us from being stuck, and maybe a victim, to owning, having choices…. If only is VERY IMPORTANT though. Where we “if only” is usually a source of real pain/hurt. Flipping with only if is so spot on brilliant…..


    borrowed your “I’m curious”, with attribution, for an upcoming 12most post. First, thank you. So appreciate your openness and sharing. You set such a great example of leading from your heart. It emboldens, encourages, and supports us all. I think Simon’s amazing “Only if” combined with your original “What if” are the secret sauce to getting unstuck.

    You are so right with “even amidst the rubble, there is great beauty and joy to be found in this life, too”. More importantly, reading your posts, as you actively fight stuckness, is a gift. Please keep being yourself and sharing…



  3. Thank you, Josepf.

    One of the most rewarding aspects of writing this blog is learning that my own struggles, triumphs, lessons, and insights have and continue to benefit others. No matter where we walk in our lives, there are universal struggles and truths that unite us all. Everyone – rich, poor, black, white, yellow, healthy, sick, young, old, Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Athiest, educated, uneducated, etc., experience ‘stuckness’, love, hate, pain, sickness, healing, joy, laughter, despair, etc. The lens through which we see/process/experience/react to these things may vary, based on our unique selves, our choices, and the cultural surroundings that influence us, but the human condition remains the same.

    My blog has also turned into a teaching moment for my children. I write, I share, and then we discuss the deeper meaning and lessons/teachings of each post, for they almost always contain a teachable moment.

    I feel honored by those, including you, who stop by for a visit and find value in what I write. No worries…the writing is here to stay!



  4. I had the good blessing of experiencing a number of important mistakes early in my life. As Thomas Huxley put it, “I can assure you that there is the greatest practical benefit in making a few failures early in life.” In those ordeals, I thought my world had imploded, but they proved to be invaluable learning experiences, humbling me in some very important ways, and providing much-needed life lessons. And I didn’t stop there, I supplanted some of my adolescent failures with a few adult failures. And while I’m not particularly proud of the poor decisions I made back then, most turned out to be wonderful–albeit painful–learning experiences that helped make me a better person. One of the most powerful themes in intellectual history is the notion of failure leading to success.

    It was somewhere between adolecence and adulthood (at the recovery end of one of those major mistakes) that I ripped out the “if onlies” and replaced them with full personal, accountability. No more blaming the parents, brothers, sisters, teachers, spouses, institutions, God, the universe, etc., but taking full responsibility for my role in the situation. It was a somewhat paradoxical moment as I learned that by taking on responsibility for the negative results of mistakes, I was empowering myself to create the positive results of success.

    And Sharon, I love the description of “choices.” One often hears the comment, “I had no choice.” In fact, we always have at least four: do nothing, exit, change the way you think and feel about it or change it. The first two usually take the least amount of energy and the last two take more. I have enjoyed what I have learned from the Prosci Institute if any one is interested in a burgeoning field around change management. http://www.prosci.com

    I will sign-off with another quote that I ran across this weekend – “Being deeply loved by someone gives you strength, while loving someone deeply gives you courage.” Lao Tzu

    Thanks again for your willingness to share.


  5. Chris,

    What a thoughtful and insightful response. Thank you.

    It’s so true that our mistakes and failures provide the fertile ground necessary to grow and mature, though the learning process is indeed often painful. In recent years, after years of giving my dreams up to others while wearing the heavy and burdensome crown of self-righteousness, my heart and soul finally rebelled, tarnishing and cracking it wide open, before casting it off completely. It’s been a humbling, painful, and at times, scary process. It has also been liberating to finally step up and finally own my own life….to learn, as you wrote in your comment, “…that by taking on responsibility for the negative results of mistakes, I was empowering myself to create the positive results of success.”

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts and insights here. I will definitely check out the Prosci Institute.

    Interestingly, you and I both read the same Lao Tzu quote this weekend. A beautiful quote…I couldn’t agree with it more.



    1. Sorry to hear of your painful journey, mine was too but being on the other side of it is awesome. One writer/teacher who I have learned to appreciate in this area is Marianne Williamson (author of Return to Love, Reflections on the Principles of the “Course on Miracles”). She would say that your sould needed it, to move to the next level.

      Prosci method addresses both an individual change model as well as an orgnizational model. The individual model follows a linear path down the ADKAR rode: awareness to recognize the change, desire to participate in and support the change; knowledge needed to change; ability (skills) needed to make the change; and, reinforcement to support the change.

      I guess reading the same Lao Tzu quote isn’t too surprising – your mantra is not much different than mine; that is, to love to live and to live to love…and learning is right in there too! We must be drinking from the same pitcher of cool-aid. And I, like you, couldn’t agree with it more.

      There was another one by James Dean that I really liked as well “Dream as if you’ll live forever, live as if you’ll die today.”

      Maybe our mutual friend was right. Chris


  6. I read Marianne’s A Return to Love quite some time ago, and I would agree with her completely: the soul needs to grow and expand. My thoughts? When denied for too long, for whatever reason, the soul will eventually find ways to either stage an uprising or wither away and die. The latter option was not appealing to me! 🙂 The uprising is rarely pretty and is usually painful, but like you, I wouldn’t trade the journey for anything. As for the pain? Once you’ve been through it, you’re no longer afraid of it, and you can finally get on with the business of living. That is one of the great rewards of sticking to the journey through the dark forest, as I like to say, until you get to the clearing on the other side.

    Perhaps so, Chris…


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