If you’re a worrier, then you’ll be well acquainted with the phrase ‘What if…’
What then follows is usually a barrage of endless possibilities (strangely all negatives) which work to undo your confidence in yourself, the situation you’re facing, and the world in general.
Often you’re told to rationalise away this line of thinking. People will tell you ‘oh, but that will never happen’ or ‘do you know the actual chances of that?’ but knowing there’s only a small chance of a negative outcome just isn’t enough to stop yourself from trying to protect yourself against it anyway. ‘What if’s’ are tricky to banish because they are possible – they could come true, and surely you need to think about what to do to protect yourself if that happens? (Which often includes not going into that situation if possible!)
The trick with ‘what if’ thinking isn’t to try and convince yourself that the event won’t happen. After all, whether or not something does occur is not guaranteed. Plus it means assigning a lot of power to something outside yourself – you’re relying on the event not happening in order to be okay. If you’re familiar with my approach, you’ll know I’m dead against trying to control circumstances or other people in order to feel better!
Instead, you need to work with what you can control. You. You need to change your belief that you won’t cope if the dreaded ‘what if’ does happen. After all, if you know you can cope with the outcomes, then you can stop trying to protect yourself from them in advance. You can safely forget about it now, and just go into the situation knowing that if something happens you didn’t prefer, you have the resources and skills to handle it.
How do you get this confidence? Unfortunately you can’t buy it, or think (or talk) it into existence. Confidence comes only when you act, when you discover that you can handle it when situations don’t go as you expect. This means actually putting yourself in situations you’re scared of, and then seeing that you can actually cope!
To get yourself to a place where that’s possible, take yourself through these questions when you get caught up in the dreaded ‘what if’ zone.
The Four Questions You Need to Ask
1. What’s the worst that can happen?
Well, of course you’re already thinking about that. Easy. Tick! Make sure you’re quite specific about what you think the outcome is. It’s not enough to say ‘I won’t cope’ or ‘I’ll feel anxious.’ What are you really afraid of there? Will you run away, burst into tears, feel hurt? What does anxiety look like for you? Will you be unable to think straight, will your heart beat fast? Get clear on what specifically will happen. Often doing this alone is enough to help us realise that we could cope! But if not, read on.
2. What’s the best that can happen?
This is where you use the power of your active imagination for good. You need to come up with the most amazingly wonderful outcome you can possibly dream of. Outcomes like imagining that going through with the event leads to you being discovered by a key person who gives you money/ your dream job/ falls in love with you instantly type of thinking. Or imagining that you get through the situation completely calm, with a beautifully rational mind and no blushing at all. Yes, it’s highly unrealistic. However, it helps you to break out of the highly unrealistic negative thinking you’re doing. The negative thinking will start to seem less believeable when you realise that it’s possible to set your mind to imagining all sorts of things that will never happen, both positive and negative. Plus, sometimes you come up with ideas that are funny. Plus, you’ve now set your brain to a positive track.
3. Will this kill me?
Now we’ve provided a counterbalance to being stuck in negativity, it’s time to acknowledge the truth – whatever happens, it’s unlikely to kill you, even if your ‘what ifs’ do come true.
4. Can I afford this time and money/resources?
You can’t say yes to everything. Mostly though, this question helps you to see that it won’t really cost you that much to give the situation a try. There’s not too much to lose – maybe $20 and a couple of hours. Again, this helps you to lighten up on the heavily negative thinking and see the situation in a more realistic light.
If the answers to questions 3 and 4 are no, and yes, respectively, then give the activity or situation a shot. You absolutely can’t improve your confidence without learning that you can handle different situations. You absolutely can’t break free of this sort of thinking by rational thinking alone – you have to go into the situation and see that what you were predicting just DOESN’T COME TRUE and that ITS NOT AS BAD AS YOU EXPECTED.
Self-confidence comes through practise discovering how to manage lots of different situations, not from avoiding situations because you’re afraid you can’t cope.
To keep this idea fresh in your mind and to keep yourself heading towards your goals:
Each week, do one scary thing you’d normally say no to, but can afford to do and which won’t kill you. Scary things can include sharing your feelings with someone, or doing an activity you don’t think you’ll be good at. Anything where you think ‘But what if…’ is a good activity to try!
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Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.