Bargaining, the guilt of “what if and if only”.

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This is part III of the 5 parts series on the stages of grief, and how grieving our past can feel to survivors of childhood sexual abuse, or any type of abuse.

Part I – Denial, “There’s no way this happened to me”. We explored how we minimize and often suppress the memories of the trauma for years and years. We can’t believe we would allow ourselves to be abused, or we can’t believe we lived this long if that really happened.

Part II – Anger, “Why did this happened to me!” . We get angry, and rightfully so, at what happened to us. We are mad a those that hurt us, and often times just mad a the world and everyone in it. We talked about expressing anger in a healthy way to help cope.

That brings us to Bargaining…

This one can be particularly difficult to endure. Not that the other 4 stages are not difficult, of course they are. Bargaining in particular though can bring with it a lot of guilt. Not only are we working through all of the other emotions, but now guilt makes us feel even worse.

It’s important to look at Bargaining in two ways: the “What if” and the “If only”.

what-if-bargaining-stage-of-grief-credit-pinterest-300x300 Bargaining, the guilt of "what if and if only".The first one is, “What if”.  Here is where we try to make a deal with ourselves, or perhaps our higher power; both of which I have tried to bargain with many times.

We can bargain with God. We think that if we offer to do something or change ourselves, that the pain will go away. That we’ll be able to deal with emotions and not feel so overwhelmed.


  • God, what if I promise to go to church every Sunday.
  • God, what if I do more good deeds in the community, or go on that weekend youth retreat.
  • God, what if I promise to read the Bible more.

We can bargain with ourselves. We try to convince ourselves that if we turn our life around that good things will happen to us.

  • If I treat my siblings better, my friends better, maybe they’ll like me more and that will help me forget about what happened quicker.
  • Maybe if I just keep myself busy and not think about it, it will just go away.
  • I’ll just start doing stuff for everyone else, then I won’t have time to be so miserable.

These lists are endless and I’m sure you have your own options that you’ve presented to yourself. You can see where guilt can creep up and get a hold of you in these scenarios. When we don’t follow through with our promises, or we don’t think we’ve done enough, we feel guilty.

Guilt makes us feel even more broken, more stuck, more miserable, and more helpless. On top ofif-only-bargaining-stage-of-grief-pinterest-300x199 Bargaining, the guilt of "what if and if only". what we already can’t change that we are trying to change, and now we can’t fulfill the agreement we made with God or ourselves.

It’s a now win the situation for us to feel so helpless.

The other part of Bargaining is the “If Only…”.

Here is what the guilt can really take over.  Just think of all the “if only” statements that come to mind in any situation, let alone trauma recovery!  Again, the list is endless, but here are some that I have used.

  • If only I had not gone back to that teenagers house so many times, I wouldn’t have been hurt and I would be in therapy right now.
  • On that note, If only I had never wandered down the street that fateful day in the first place. None of this would have happened.
  • If only I had the guts to stand up to the bullies in middle school, I wouldn’t have been pushed around and been so much of an outcast.

Talk about guilt!

We are trying to tell ourselves that we should have done something that we weren’t capable of doing at the time. We are trying to hold ourselves accountable for something we couldn’t understand then. We are thinking with an adult mind, about the events that may have happened to us when we were a child. 

Early on in our recovery journey especially, we can find it hard to give ourselves a break. We think we should have done this or could have done that.  Those “shoulds” are not relegated to only early recovery though. It takes a long time to learn to be kind to ourselves and not place so much blame and responsibility on our younger selves.

Trust me, I totally get it. It’s hard for me too.

That’s the thing about abuse recovery. It’s about realizing that we couldn’t control what happened to us. We had no idea what was even going on and why; why it was so bad and why it wasn’t just normal behavior. On top of that if we were children at the time, trying to say that we had the power to fend off an adult who was hurting us…well, there was just no way.

What if and If only serves to make us feel like could have done more, or anything at all to keep from getting hurt.  The reality is, these feelings are a normal part of working through our past. We need to sit with it and not feel guilty about doing so.

It’s also imperative to realize that we will have to allow ourselves to move on through the process of grief if we ever want to start feeling better.

Once we realize that we were groomed to not speak up and tell someone; to try to seek help…we can know that it wasn’t our fault and we couldn’t have stopped it.

As always; continue to realize that we may very well go back through the other stages for a time; none of this grieving process is linear unfortunately. I say that often because I need to remind myself of it as much as I want to pass that along and validate that for you.


Check out the entire series on the 5 Stages of Grief for Survivors by clicking here. 

This series is working through grief as an abuse survivor, but of course Grief pertains to other areas of life as well. Losing a loved one, losing a job, our best 4 legged friend/family member… anything that causes us to agonize and feel loss. 

My friends over at have some great information on grieving the loss of a loved one. 


Feature image courtesy of – quotes and other images credited in the url links.


847c5c806b7247eec7709d49a90e694a?s=100& Bargaining, the guilt of "what if and if only".
Blogger-Podcaster-Author-Advocate for Mental Health.

Matt is survivor of childhood sexual abuse & narcissistic abuse, living with Dissociation, Anxiety, & PTSD.

This blog exists to inspire all who have survived the trauma of abuse. All posts, podcasts, and videos are my life as a survivor shared openly and honestly to help inspire as many as possible to speak up, speak out, and not be ashamed.

5 Responses to " Bargaining, the guilt of “what if and if only”. "

  1. Kami Lingren says:

    I have found such helpful things in this series, Matt. Though the root of my grief (and guilt) is not from abuse, I have been able to find comfort and healthy reminders as I’ve read your words. Proud of your vulnerability, friend. It’s helping us readers!

    • Matt says:

      Thank you Kami, I always appreciate your encouragement friend. Though our journey’s are different, the feelings are all too similar. I’m happy for you and all of the work you are doing for yourself to keep fighting every day. Always be good to you friend and know that you are making such a huge difference in the lives of your readers.

  2. […] experienced denial, then anger, then bargaining, and now we come to […]

  3. Matt,

    Thank you so much for your fierce courage in sharing your story of surviving sexual abuse – you are truly helping so many people and encouraging them to speak out about their experiences and helping them heal.

    I really love how you explain this “bargaining stage” of grief by breaking it into the “if only’s” and the “what if’s” and the self-blame that abuse survivors often struggle with.

    As you said, the grief of losing a loved one too can also about these kinds of feelings. At Love Lives On, we have had a l lot of our viewers express very similar experiences of bargaining – especially those grieving the loss of a loved one to suicide. Suicide grief is unique and has a dimension of guilt in it which we feel like we somehow could have prevented it from happening – “If only I had picked up on the signs” or “What if I said this”. As you so beautifully put, “we are trying to tell ourselves that we should have done something that we weren’t capable of doing at the time”.

    Thank you for writing this series and for sharing your experiences and wisdom with your readers – not just those whose grief is rooted in abuse, but for all kinds of experiences with grief and loss. Your words and your message of healing are so powerful!

    • Matt says:

      Thank you so much for your encouragement and support. Surviving Grief is such a painful process to endure, but the realization that we did survive and now we can learn from it is something that I try to embrace. Fighting through those What Ifs and If Onlys can be confusing and invalidating, but when we realize that beating ourselves up for what we seemingly should have done or could have done, only invalidates us more…it becomes more clear just how far self love, self validation can go.

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