Not-So-Great Expectations

“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of Hell, a hell of Heaven.”

—John Milton

Have you ever noticed that people often expect things to go badly? Without any conscious prompting, our minds automatically jump to and fixate on the worst possible scenarios. Consider the following two examples and see if either of them sounds familiar:

  • It’s 2 p.m., and your boss still hasn’t responded to the report you sent him this morning. As you check your email obsessively, you conclude that you haven’t received any feedback because the report is terrible and your boss can’t use it. (What really happened: Your boss’s noon call ran unexpectedly long and he hasn’t had a chance to finish reading the report—but he’s pleased so far!)
  • Your spouse has seemed distant the past few days, is being secretive, and is evading your questions. You’re consumed by the thought that he is involved with someone else and is thinking of leaving you. (What really happened: Your fifteenth anniversary is only a month away, and your spouse is trying to plan a surprise getaway without alerting you.)

Recently, something similar happened to me. Working to collaborate with a well-respected professional, I put together a packet of my materials, mailed it, and waited for a response that I expected to be forthcoming in a day or two. By the time nine days had passed with no response, I was completely convinced that this individual was thoroughly unimpressed with my work and had absolutely no desire to be associated with me. This assumption caused me a ton of distress and anxiety, and prevented me from truly enjoying a weekend spent with my family.

Imagine my (very pleasant!) surprise when I received word that my negative conclusion had been incorrect: This person was excited about the materials I had sent and would love to work with me. His recent schedule had simply been packed, and he hadn’t had a chance to immediately look at what I had sent—hence the delayed response. I immediately realized how shortsighted and unhealthy my reaction had been. I resolved anew not to allow myself to waste time I can never get back by wrongly assuming the worst!

The fact is, we all do this sometimes. We all put ourselves through large amounts of stress, anxiety, and mental anguish because we dwell on negative possibilities that aren’t actually happening! It’s a case of an overactive imagination being used for ill, not good. We would save ourselves a lot of suffering if we could stop our minds from dwelling on the most horrible “what ifs” we can come up with.

Clearly, when we expect the worst, we don’t do ourselves any favors. So why do we persist in this unhelpful mental habit? For one thing, I think, expecting the worst is a way to cushion ourselves emotionally—we’re trying to soften the blow if things go wrong. Think of the popular saying, If you expect the worst, you’ll never be disappointed.

Expecting the worst can also be a symptom of a generally pessimistic, glass half-empty attitude. And some people expect the worst because it often happens to them. They’re caught in a self-fulfilling prophecy cycle of negativity—they don’t even try to make positive outcomes happen anymore.

Before I started my happiness journey, I used to be a master of dwelling on what could go wrong, how I might screw up, and how circumstances could conspire against me. (And, as the story I shared above shows, I still find myself getting caught in this mental trap from time to time, as we all do!) If you’re familiar with my story, you know that I paid a high price for my negative mental habits: a complete lack of peace, an inability to enjoy the present moment, high levels of stress and anxiety, difficulty experiencing quality rest, and more. Constantly expecting the worst can also take a toll on your relationships, your ability to trust and collaborate with others, and even your physical health.

When it comes to thinking about the future, positive thinking is definitely the better and healthier path. Over the years, I have learned a number of tactics that can help you to stop fixating on the worst possibilities your brain can come up with.

As with all major life changes, this shift in thinking will take time. And as my recent experience with anxiously waiting on a response shows, it’s something you’ll need to continuously work on. (When you do slip up and allow a negative outlook to take over, don’t beat yourself up—nobody is perfect! Instead, look for the lesson.) But I promise you, when you make a genuine effort to conquer the suspicion, fear, and worries that are driving you to expect the worst, you’ll become noticeably happier.

In the coming weeks, I will share my tactics to help you stop expecting the worst, including the lesson I learned when I jumped to conclusions after not hearing back from the person with whom I wanted to collaborate. Stay tuned!

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