How to Stop Expecting the Worst Possible Outcomes
Episode #4 of the course Overcoming social anxiety by Eileen Purdy MSW, M.Ed.
You know the sky is not falling, so why do you do this to yourself!
Our brain makes things so complicated for us. Don’t get me wrong—some may argue the brain is the most amazing thing in the universe. And I tend to agree, but c’mon, work with us!
Thinking about the future is quite a unique ability we humans have. And evolutionarily speaking, it has contributed to our ability to survive and even thrive as a species. So to be clear, we aren’t trying to get rid of this helpful quality, only curb its negative bias so we aren’t always expecting the worst. Because not only is being fixated on worst-case scenarios annoying, it is totally unhelpful.
Fortunately, undoing this annoying habit is possible and won’t bring a screeching halt to your chances of human survival.
But first, let’s look briefly at some reasons we might get attached to our negative predictions. Mark Tyrell, an anxiety therapist with tons of online resources, describes this well. “Thinking ‘the worst,’ expecting failure and betrayal, seeing downsides where others don’t, even seeing positives as negatives—all convey a kind of insurance policy. ‘If I expect the worst, then I won’t be disappointed when it happens.’
Another “advantage” to negative thinking is the “I told you so” syndrome. For some, it can feel more important to be proven right in their negative predictions than to have good things happen (and therefore be proven “wrong”). Both of these examples are tricky because they tend to lead to a self-fulfilling prophesy, which only serves to more deeply entrench these negative ways of thinking.”
Do you fall into any of these thinking traps? If you do, you’re not alone. Changing these thoughts will feel like a leap of faith. So before you jump, let me introduce the helpful tool of cultivating awareness.
By cultivating awareness, I mean recognizing your negative, worst-case-scenario thoughts as soon as they start or as soon as you can. With social anxiety, these types of thoughts have probably become so second-nature that you may not realize you are even having them or it may take a little while for them to register. On the flip side, you may think you are ALWAYS thinking negatively.
By becoming more aware of your thoughts (positive, negative, and neutral), you’ll give yourself an opportunity to interrupt the negative types of thinking and replace those thoughts with more neutral ones.
Strengthening your “awareness muscle” takes practice. Here is an activity that will help you with this. It is a two-minute daily practice. Find a place for you to sit quietly and comfortably for two minutes. During the two minutes, picture yourself as a “fly on the wall” of your mind. Notice your thoughts as they come into your mind. Try not to judge them or get attached to them. Just notice them and observe them; as one thought leaves, see the next one enter.
It might look something like this: “Okay, here we go. Two minutes. This isn’t going to do anything. I should do laundry today. I should write that down so I remember to do that. It is windy outside. I forgot to put the bill in the mail….” Two-minute timer goes off. “That wasn’t so bad. I’m not sure it did anything, though.”
And yes, in the beginning, it might seem like it isn’t going to do anything. But think of it like starting a new workout routine on New Year’s Day. You go to the gym and lift weights. If you stopped after that one day of lifting weights, you would have gained a very small benefit. But if you continued to go every day for a month, you’d definitely see and feel the benefits, because strengthening of anything takes time.
This simple exercise for just two minutes each day for the next month will strengthen your daily awareness of the moments when you are predicting a negative outcome. The antidote, then, is using these moments as an opportunity to choose a different thought and break your worst possible outcomes thinking.
Tomorrow you’ll learn how to be more comfortable in new situations—another benefit of neutralizing your worst possible outcome thinking!
“How to Stop Worrying and Start Living” by Dale Carnegie
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