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!

Put Fear in Its Place

I was saddened to hear of the recent passing of Susan Jeffers, who was a pioneer in the self-help movement. Her book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway was first published in 1987, and has since become a classic. Over the past few days I’ve found myself thinking a lot about fear, and how it has played a role in my own life.

Now, don’t get me wrong: Fear is an incredibly important survival mechanism. Fear is often what saves us from harming ourselves and helps us to keep our loved ones safe. However, fear becomes a problem when you allow it to take over your life. Being overly fearful of something (or being fearful of nearly everything) can be indicative of a bigger issue, and is something that needs to be addressed.

As someone who suffered from depression and anxiety, I spent a large part of my life consumed by fear in various forms. I was afraid of being away from home as a child. (I drank paint at summer camp, remember?!) I was afraid of rejection. I was afraid of failure. I was afraid of not being liked.

As I look back, I realize now that I created most of those fears myself, and I can see that they had a crippling effect on my life. In hindsight, I’m also struck by the fact that I wasn’t all that afraid of any of the “big things” like death or disease or tragedy. Instead, the majority of my fears were self-created, and that, I think, is the problem that most of us are facing today.

I’ve said it a million times, but it bears repeating—we are our own worst critics. We focus on our mistakes rather than relishing in our accomplishments. We cut ourselves down and beat ourselves up. And when you feel small and weak, it’s much easier for fear to creep in and take over.

So how can you make sure that your fears aren’t holding you back from the life you are supposed to be living? Try a few of these tips to keep your fear in check.

Build yourself up. The most important thing for you to do is to make sure you aren’t your own worst enemy when it comes to living a life of fear. If you aren’t actively building yourself up and focusing on your positive attributes, then you won’t be confident and strong in the face of your fears. Start TODAY by making a list of the things you are good at. Also, try to stop yourself from focusing on the one thing that went wrong. Instead, allow yourself to feel great about the many things you did right, and about the wonderful person you are.

Put it in writing. Our anxieties can often seem bigger and scarier the longer we allow them to float around in our heads. So sit down and write out the things that you are afraid of. As you do, consider each one. Where does this fear come from? Is it internal or is it from an outside source? Think about possible solutions for each fear. Are you in a position to neutralize or lessen any of them? You’ll probably find that putting your fears in writing can make many of them seem less overwhelming and more manageable. (Plus, many people find that there’s something very therapeutic about putting pen to paper in general!)

Think about the worst-case scenario. For most of us, the fears that are the most consuming are the ones that are based in the unknown. When a situation has an unknown outcome, fear of what might happen can stop us from moving forward. But in many of these “what if” scenarios, our fears are mostly unfounded, and there is a good chance that the outcome will actually be good.

For example, you might be afraid to change careers, or to ask your boss for a raise, because you don’t know what the outcome may be. Allowing yourself to think through all the possible scenarios can help you to alleviate the “unknown” part of your fear. Ask yourself, What is the worst thing that could possibly happen? Then think through what the ramifications of that worst-case scenario would be. Mentally preparing in this way (instead of focusing in on the “what if”) will alleviate a lot of your fear and enable you to move forward.

Create an action plan. You can tackle and conquer many of your fears by thinking about them on a real-world level. Once you have identified the worst-case scenario for each one (as described above), ask yourself how you might feasibly handle each situation. Often, developing an action plan to deal with potential negative consequences will help you to feel more empowered and confident. Write out what you would do in each case, but also think through what steps you might be able to take now to prevent the worst-case scenarios from happening.

Talk to someone. The longer you internalize your fears, the more they will grow, fester, and drag you down. Whether it’s your spouse, a trusted friend, or even a qualified professional (like a therapist), talking to someone about your fears can be an important step in moving forward. Not only will it be a relief to have your fear off your chest and out in the open, having a sounding board to talk through your fears can also give you ideas as to how you might work through them. That outside perspective can give you invaluable advice, comfort, and support.

Don’t let fear keep you from living the life you were intended to live. The world is full of excitement and opportunity, and it can be yours for the taking if you’ll allow yourself to go for it. Let the legacy you’ll leave behind motivate you to move forward today.