What if it all went to sh*t? 😰
What to do when your brain automatically jumps to worst-case scenarios
In Spider-Man: No Way Home, there is a line from MJ that stands out:
“If you expect disappointment, then you can never really be disappointed.”
A bit self-deprecating, but practical for sure. It’s easier to imagine the worst than get our hopes high up, only to get slammed into the earth once the confidence wears off and the result is out.
The act has a name: catastrophizing. It is when you believe you’re in a worse situation than you really are, assuming the worst will happen. Here’s one example of the thought pattern:
Someone: *is wary of failing an exam*
The exam was impossibly difficult.
What if I failed?
Oh, God, if I failed, it’d mean I’m a bad student.
What would happen to my grade?
I would never pass. My degree is a lost cause. I would flunk out, never graduate, let alone find a job!
When put like that, it looks a bit too dramatic, doesn’t it? If you think about it, how many of your worst-case scenarios actually came true?
Catastrophizing isn’t at all unusual. It’s our brain’s common reaction to uncertain situations, stemming from our fight-to-flight instinct that interprets uncertainties as danger.
Good news is, there’s a recipe to interrupt catastrophizing: by decatastrophizing.
Get off the time machine
The thing about catastrophizing is that we jump from the worrying situation in the present straight to the future. What would happen after this, after that, in the next following days or weeks following our mishap. It was failing to graduate. Failing a job interview. Being scorned for what we said in a meeting. Never making that promotion.
These future scenarios are all in our heads. Throwing yourself into next week or next year where your life was in ruins won’t help anything, so don’t go there yet. Take a deep breath, remember that these imaginary situations don’t happen, and stay in the present.
How to stay in the present? Name the facts!
One trick is to remember that fears aren’t facts.
Say you’re in a meeting, and you just said something that in hindsight was obvious enough. Your thoughts start spiraling to the worst situation where you think everyone in the room thinks you’re dumb.
When you start focusing on what ifs, interrupt yourself by naming the what is’:
Is this the first time you did something like this? (Probably not.)
Has this happened to other people before? (Yes. Everyone states the obvious all the time.)
And when that happens, is it of dire consequences? (Beware, differentiate between your rational and still-anxious answers.)
Is there nothing you can do to make up for the mishap? (You can probably speak in the next turn to clarify your previous point. Or you can discard it entirely and talk about something else?)
And other reality-check questions!
Contrary to popular belief (read: our own), no one pays that much attention to our mistakes. People are too busy thinking about their own mistakes to pay attention to what we do.
Bring out your worst…
While we’re halfway orchestrating our demise, might as well play it out. Let’s see what would happen if it actually came true. (That itself is a big if.)
Scenario: You failed the exam and flunked out.
What would happen next? (You reserve the right to despair for a while. Then what? Do you have another thing you’d like to pursue other than this degree in question? Another passion, another calling? Maybe you’ve been secretly burying a desire to pursue another track still related to your study program? Or even something else entirely?)
Would it be something you really can’t recover from? (Remember that a future—even the proverbial one—can be notably undesirable without being disastrous. Your path may diverge, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get back on your feet after that.)
… and your best
Now that we’ve ended our screening of The Bad Scenario, to make it even, let’s end it on a good note. You’ll see that both scenarios actually stemmed from wild imaginations.
Scenario: You aced the test with the highest score! You received your degree complete with a glowing recommendation from your professor! Your friends are now queueing to ask for mentorship and recruiters are blasting your email!
Does that have a nice ring to it? We hope so. Would you believe it would happen? Point is, if you answer no, then your bad scenario has the same probability of not coming true either.
Or, in MJ’s case (spoiler alert! Stop reading and jump to the next paragraph!): applies for MIT, gets rejected but that’s okay since she’s expected failure to begin with, saves the world, and gets into MIT anyway.
See? The expecting disappointment and worst-case thinking, all for nothing. We might not be MJ, but it stays true that assuming the worst often doesn’t prove anything.
See you next week, and don’t forget to stay in the present! 👋