Have you ever noticed that certain people tend to expect things to go badly in their marriages (and the same is true for life in general)? Often, without any conscious prompting, our minds automatically jump to and fixate on the worst possible scenarios. Consider the following examples and see if any of them sound familiar:
* For the past three months, life at home has been great. You and your spouse are working together like a well-oiled machine. Youíve been enjoying each othersí company and disagreements are resolved almost before they begin. But youíre not enjoying the domestic blissóyouíre waiting for the other shoe to drop. You think, "Why is she being so agreeable? What does she want from me?" Whatís really happening: Your wife has been reading books by relationship experts and discussing how to improve your marriage with her counseloróshe wants to make it, not her career or her friends, her top priority.
* Your spouse has seemed distant the past few days, is being secretive, and is evading your questions. Youíre consumed by the thought that he is involved with someone else and is thinking of leaving you. Whatís really happening: Your 15th anniversary is only a month away and your spouse is trying to plan a surprise getaway without alerting you.
* Itís been two weeks since you asked your wife about setting up a new household budget that would allow your family to save more money. She said sheíd "think about it," but hasnít said a word since. Clearly, she hates the idea, thinks youíre dumb for suggesting it and has no desire to trim expenses. Whatís really happening: Your spouse actually thinks that beefing up your retirement account is a great idea, but somewhere between answering a few urgent work e-mails and the giving the kids a bath, your family budget dropped off her radar. She needs a simple reminder.
Understanding Our Bottom-Feeding Thoughts
We put ourselves through so much stress, anxiety, and mental anguish because we dwell on negative possibilities that arenít actually happening! Itís a case of an overactive imagination being used for ill. 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 donít do ourselves any favors. So why do we persist in this unhelpful mental habit? For one thing, expecting the worst is a way to cushion ourselves emotionallyóweíre trying to soften the blow if things go wrong. Think of the popular saying, "If you expect the worst, youíll 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. Theyíre caught in a self-fulfilling prophecy cycle of negativityóthey donít even try to make positive outcomes happen anymore.
I used to be a master of dwelling on what could go wrong, how I might screw up, and how circumstances would conspire against me. And I paid a high price: a complete lack of mental 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.
Positive thinking is definitely the better, happier, and healthier path. Here are 12 strategies to help you conquer the suspicion, fear, and worries that may be driving you to expect the worst:
1. Acknowledge how busy people are. When you donít see results or receive a response from someone else in (what you think should be) a timely manner, itís easy to get upset and jump to the worst possible conclusion. He doesnít want to work with me. She isnít interested in making our marriage better. I didnít get the job. And so on. But wait a second, maybe the current radio silence doesnít mean "no," it might simply mean that the other person is busy.
The next time youíre waiting on a response and find yourself worrying, think through your own schedule and remind yourself how busy you often are. In this day and age, almost everybody is overscheduled and overstressed. Maybe the other person hasnít had time to decide, your suggestion dropped off their immediate radar, or they havenít even read your e-mail yet. No news doesnít necessarily mean bad news, it just may mean the other person has a lot to do!
“No news doesnít necessarily mean bad news, it just may mean the other person has a lot to do!”
2. Stay busy yourself. You canít always control how long you have to wait on an outcome, or even what that outcome is. But you can control how you wait. As I see it, you can torture yourself by dwelling on negative possibilities or you can distract yourself by staying focused on and engaged in other things.
Preferably, occupy yourself with tasks that use your strengths and will bolster your positive attitude and self-esteem. Whatever you do, donít torture yourself by sitting by the phone or computer while you fret! Watching the metaphorical pot wonít make it boil any faster. All youíre accomplishing is worsening your own mood and mental state.
3. Take a dose of muscle medicineÖ or meditate! Have you ever heard of a runnerís high? Itís a real feelingóand it can help you to stop expecting the worst. Thatís because exercise releases endorphins, the bodyís natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins also decrease the amount of stress hormonesólike cortisolóin your body. In fact, various studies have shown that exercise can be just as effective as taking prescription antidepressant medications without the potential side effects. In other words, pumping iron or going on a run can literally melt away some of your apprehension.
Exercise also makes you feel more powerful, relaxes you, and enables you to sleep better; all of which can help you to worry less. I always head to the gym whenever I canít shake a particular worry. After my workout, I feel much more at peace, and sometimes, my unconscious mind even solves my problem by coming up with a new idea or a more balanced perspective while my body has been occupied with vigorous activity. If you donít have an hour or so to devote to concentrated exercise, simply get outside and walk around the block a few timesóit can still effectively change your mood.
I also recommend meditating when youíre fixated on a negative possibility. You might be surprised to learn that meditation can actually spark positive changes in your brainís biochemistry. I can tell you from recent personal experience that meditation can help you deal more effectively with stress, lower your blood pressure, help you to feel content, and make you more mindful in the present momentóall of which are helpful tools when it comes to not worrying so much about the future.
4. Take steps toward a solution. When you find yourself expecting a particular negative event (however likely or unlikely it might be), ask yourself if there is anything you can do to prepare for or even prevent it. In many cases, youíll be able to take concrete steps toward a solution. Not only will you be keeping yourself busy, youíll also be moving from helplessness to empowerment.
“Your fears will hold you back, and your low self-esteem will prevent you from developing yourself and taking risks.”
To use a work analogy, imagine youíve heard rumors your company will be downsizing. Your worst expectation is that youíll be laid off. Instead of fretting every day about losing your job, take steps to make yourself more valuable. Ask for feedback from your boss and incorporate her suggestions into your work. Always go the extra mile. Help your colleagues to succeed and improve. Take continuing education classes, if possible. All of these actions will distract you from worrying, and hopefully theyíll highlight to your supervisors just how essential you are if layoffs are on the table. And if you are laid off, youíll have made yourself into a more valuable candidate for another organization to hire.
5. Phone a friend. This "lifeline" can really help! The next time you catch yourself ruminating on just how bad things are going to get, pick up the phone and call someone you trust. Specifically, ask your friend to help you think of several alternative outcomes (which, by definition, canít be as bad as the worst-case scenario you were envisioning). A more neutral third party will have more perspective and will probably find it much easier to come up with not-as-bad, and even good, alternatives to help you stop thinking in extremes.
When you expect the worst, youíre essentially discounting thousands of other possibilities that could occur. In other words, youíre mentally thinking in black and white. But the truth is, life is made up of many shades of color. Asking a friend to help you see more of those shades will talk you down from the emotional ledge youíre standing on and will help to break you out of your mental rut.
6. Retrain yourself to look for the positive. Numerous positive thinking masters and even scientists agree: The things you think about and center your attention on shape the way you experience life. In other words, if your focus is on all of the horrible, negative, crippling things that might happen to you in the future, youíll be calling more of them into your life. How? Youíre engaging in self-sabotage. Your fears will hold you back, and your low self-esteem will prevent you from developing yourself and taking risks. At the very least, youíll be so fixated on the worst possibilities that you might miss positive opportunities that are right under your nose.
Some people call this the law of attraction. But whatever you want to call it, I know from experience that if you train yourself to look for the positive, youíll attract more positive things into your life. Youíll be happier, friendlier, kinder, and more optimisticÖ and that will bring better people and better opportunities into your orbit.
One of the best ways Iíve found to help myself focus more on the positive is by developing an attitude of gratitude. When youíre actively being thankful for things in your life, itís harder to let yourself spiral downward into negativity and have a doomsday mindset about whatís to come. Every evening, I look back on my day and identify several things I am thankful for. If something bad or disappointing happened that dayóor if Iím worried about something in the futureóI challenge myself to find the silver lining. For example, if I didnít get a speaking engagement I was hoping for, I remind myself that I wonít have to spend that evening or weekend away from my family.
7. Trust the master plan. No, the universe is not out to get you. In fact, things usually have a way of working out. Often, though, itís impossible to see the "master plan" until youíre viewing it through the lens of hindsight. The next time you find yourself focusing on a future fear, stop and remind yourself that youíre not omniscient. You donít know how a dreaded event will ultimately impact your life. For instance, unbeknownst to you, maybe the job you wanted but didnít get would have required you to travel away from your family frequently. Or maybe the pay cut that has you so worried will force your family to cut out extraneous luxuries and activities, ultimately bringing you all closer together.
“Donít generalize your failures, and donít let your disappointment bleed into the future.”
Even if your worst expectations do come to pass (which usually doesnít happen), thereís a reason why. When I look back on all of the twists and turns my own life has taken, I see that many of my fears were never validated, and the ones that did come to pass often ended up being positive turning points that helped me to move in a better direction. And often, the opposite is true as well: The things we expect to be wonderful can turn out to be unhealthy and debilitating. Just think of the stereotypical ambitious businessman who is thrilled to start a high-paying and high-powered job, only to look back in 10 years and realize that his workaholism has cost him his family and friends.
My point is, realizing that you canít predict how something will ultimately impact your lifeóthat all you can do is make the best decision possible with the information you have nowóreally takes the pressure off. In all situations, especially when youíre worried and expecting the worst, I encourage you to use this Susan Jeffers affirmation: "Itís all happening perfectly." It really is!
8. Stop being so unkind to yourself. Beating yourself up, dwelling on how inept you think you are, and engaging in negative self-talk are all unhealthy behaviors in general. Whatís more, they encourage you to view the future through a worst-case-scenario lens. For example, if you donít get the promotion you had hoped for, you might think to yourself, "Iím so stupid and incapable. Iím never going to move up in this company because I donít deserve to. Nothing ever works out well for me." Then, youíll probably go on to list all of your past failures in order to prove your own point.
Stop. Remember, we are all human, and we will all make mistakes from time to time. In the future realize that this is just one promotion you didnít get at one particular time. That doesnít mean you wonít be chosen the next time a spot opens up. Donít generalize your failures, and donít let your disappointment bleed into the future. Instead, make a point of celebrating your successes and reminding yourself of all the things you do well.
9. Try giving others the benefit of the doubt. Do you find yourself assuming the worst about other people when it comes to their attitudes and actions, especially toward you? Say, for example, that your spouse is unusually quiet because she has a mild headache and is preoccupied with a work problem. However, you didnít ask her what was wrong when you both got home for the eveningóyou "read her mind" and decided that she wasnít talkative because she was mad at you. As a result, you have needlessly spent the whole night in a state of anxiety.
Unless you actually work for the Psychic Friends Network, remind yourself that you arenít a mind reader. Most of the time your guesses will be incorrect and will only be an upsetting waste of your time. Instead, have a conversation with the person in question. If that isnít possible, put yourself in his or her shoes and list reasons why you might behave in a similar way. Youíll probably realize that the other individual isnít out to get you after all.
“Sometimes the simple act of putting pen to paper can help you to break the vicious cycle of mental worrying.”
10. Live in the momentÖ Seriously, take time to smell the roses! While it might be clichť, this old adage is fundamentally solid advice. To put it simply, when youíre engaged in the here and now, youíre focused on a reality that you can control, and youíre in a position to notice and appreciate all of the blessings around you. But if youíre fretting about what might come to pass, you donít have enough bandwidth left to enjoy other aspects of your life. Youíre exacerbating your anxiety and unhappiness by choosing to dwell on things you canít change or control.
It may sound simple, but the following exercise has really helped me. Whenever you catch yourself worrying about the future, stop what youíre doing and close your eyes. Concentrate on breathing in and out for a few moments. Then, open your eyes and use all of your senses to anchor you to the present moment. Look out the window and enjoy the view. Smell the scent thatís coming from an air freshener or a candle. Pet your dog and notice the soft feel of her fur. Then, consciously shift your attention to solving a problem or completing a task that you have control over. Often, thatís all it takes to break out of a debilitating mental rut!
11. ÖBut take a mental trip to the future when you find yourself dreading the worst. When weíre expecting the worst, we tend to wear mental blinders. All we can see is the thing weíre dreading. As far as weíre concerned, the world ends with that event or outcome. But does it really? Take a step back and look again. The truth is, even when things donít go our way, life goes on. Thatís why I believe itís so helpful to take a mental trip to the future when youíre dreading the worst.
Imagine that your worst expectations come true. Now, fast-forward six months, a year, or even five or 10 years in your mind. Is that dreaded event still impacting your life? Has it made you permanently unhappy, restricted your options or blown your bank account? In most instances, the answer will be no. In fact, in six months or a year, the thing you fear probably wonít even be on your radar anymore. (And if it is, figure out what you can do now to prevent it or minimize its impact.) "Traveling to the future" is a great tool for putting negative expectations into contextÖand more importantly, out of your mind!
12. Write it out. Our anxieties can often seem bigger and scarier the longer we allow them to float around in our heads. The remedy? Sit down and write out the things that you are afraid of. As you do, consider each one. "Where does this worry come from? Is it internal or is it from an outside source? Is it likely to happen? How will it impact me if it does?"
Sometimes the simple act of putting pen to paper can help you to break the vicious cycle of mental worrying. I recommend recording your fears in a format you can revisit, such as a journal or a saved computer document. Once the crisis has passed (or failed to happen), look back at what you wrote and compare your expectations to what actually occurred. This will help you hone and balance your perspective as you move into the future.
Things really do have a way of working out. It can be hard to accept that truth and choose to let go of your worrying, especially if itís a long-standing habit, but I promise when you learn to manage your expectations, take the focus off your fears, and be productive in the present moment, your life will be so much healthier and happier.
Todd Patkin, author of "Finding Happiness: One Manís Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety andóFinallyóLet the Sunshine In" and "Twelve Weeks to Finding Happiness: Boot Camp for Building Happier People," grew up in Needham, Massachusetts. His new book, "The Sunny Days Secret: A Guide for Finding Happiness," is coming in summer 2013. After graduating from Tufts University, Todd joined the family business and spent the next 19 years helping to grow it to new heights. After it was purchased by Advance Auto Parts in 2005, he was free to focus on his main passions: philanthropy and giving back to the community, spending time with family and friends, and helping more people learn how to be happy. Todd lives with his wonderful wife, Yadira, their amazing son, Josh, and two great dogs, Tucker and Hunter.