It’s almost Halloween. What scares you most? Do you believe in ghosts, have skeletons in your closet, or fear the spectre of the tax man? Whatever it is, it’s probably different to what scares your partner, your children, and your neighbour across the road. Are rollercoasters frightening or scary? Is job loss a failure or a chance to change direction? Are you the kind of person who sees an opportunity in every crisis, or does your mind tend to see the acid rain lurking in those clouds with silver linings? What we fear often depends on what is between our ears, what we tell ourselves about an event. We need to make sure our minds are our best friends, not our ghoulish enemies.
What’s even more dangerous than an enemy though? An enemy pretending to be your friend.
‘The thoughts that have the most power to destroy us
Today I wanted to look at one type of thought in particular that is powerfully negative, but hides behind the guise of ‘helping’ and so is often left to run unchecked through your head, creating havoc.
‘What If…?' Thinking
What if?’ Thinking is anytime you try to guess the future outcome of an action you take. For example, ‘I want to ask for a pay raise but what if…?’ Your mind then fills in the blank with many alternate scenarios, almost all of them negative.
Why is it so bad?
Because it’s a powerful combination of focusing on the negative and the unrealistic. It causes you to suffer through events that may not even happen as you try to predict the future and work out how you’ll cope with all these possible (yet unlikely) scenarios. But the absolute worst thing about ‘what if…’ thinking though, is that it tries to convince you it’s helping. You tell yourself that you’re just preparing yourself, you’re protecting yourself. But what if thinking rarely leads to taking practical, preventative actions (that kind of thinking actually is kind of helpful). Instead, you torture yourself by imagining all sorts of terrible outcomes, all in the name of being ‘prepared’, the idea of which is captured beautifully by this quote:
‘I’ve lived through many terrible things in my time,
Do not be fooled by ‘what if’ thinking! You are not a fortune teller. Even if you were, mentally rehearsing how you’ll cope with a negative outcome has limited usefulness. You’re much better off just coping with the situation once, when it happens. By torturing yourself imagining all the possible bad things that could happen, you end up living through (by playing them out in your mind) all these horrible possibilities that you don’t have to.
Even if you do get it right, and one of the negative scenarios is the outcome, you’re unlikely to remember your well-rehearsed comeback or safety strategy in the heat of the moment.
Another, separate problem with ‘what if…?’ thinking is that it makes you so fearful of all these potentially hideous outcomes that it stops you from actually living through the situation, if you can at all avoid it.
For example, if you want to ask for a pay rise, then cget aught in a whole lot of negative ‘but what if my boss…’ thoughts, pretty soon you’ve convinced yourself that asking for a raise is actually a terrible idea and not worth the potential pain.
By stopping yourself from acting, not only do you cut off the potential benefits of actually asking (you know, you might get the raise!), but you also cut off the opportunity to see that your predictions were WRONG – because you don’t test them out by entering the situation regardless. Unchallenged like this, ‘What if…’ thinking seems like it actually protects you and seems even more ‘helpful’ next time round.
What can you do about ‘What If? Thinking?’
Once you’ve decided on a course of action, ‘what if’s’ get much louder and soon stop you from taking action. I like to not give them an opportunity. Once you’ve made a decision, force your own hand: make the phone call straight away, enrol and pay for the course, make an appointment in your calendar etc. before your fears and negativity even get a chance to get up off the couch.
Play the opposites game
‘What if I tell them what I’m planning, and they laugh at me?’ Well what if I tell them what I’m planning, and they give me a big hug, tell me it’s an amazing idea and offer to help me for free? For every super negative thought you let through, make yourself imagine the opposite – something wildly, outrageously positive.
This is not ‘positive thinking’ and you don’t need to believe the alternative. This method ‘s power is in helping you to see that both the positive and the negative thought are equally unlikely. It breaks the chain of thinking that brings to your mind other negative possibilities.
Super charge it
The above technique is even more powerful if you write down both thoughts, then go into the situation, and take notice of what actually happens. Did either of your predictions come true? Which one was closer to the actual outcome?
Part of the trouble with ‘what if?’ thinking is that we never stop to check how accurate it is (hint: not very accurate!) and in fact, often don’t even give ourselves the opportunity to check them, because we avoid the situation entirely. But if you try this technique a few times, you’ll start to see how far off your predictions actually are. This means that in the future, you’re much less likely to buy into ‘what if?’ because you know, through experience (not just me telling you!) how useless they are.
So now you have some ideas to conquer this most sneaky of scary thinking, I’d love to know…
What’s your #Halloween?
What’s one thing about your mind you wish you could change? Let me know in the comments below or send me an email at email@example.com. I’ll help you find solutions in upcoming blog posts.
Lana Hall, Psychologist. Helping you to live your best life, using the power of psychology.