Let’s face it, “What if……” thoughts are nasty. They can be scary, persistent, and at times, seemingly insurmountable. Here’s a great video of Shel Silverstein narrating his famous “Whatif” poem:
Some of the What if’s….. in the poem are silly (“What if my head starts getting smaller”), but some are lifted right out of our thoughts (“What if no one likes me?”), and can zap up all of our energy, keep us awake at night, and lead to us avoiding people or situations where the “What if….?” might come true. So what can you do if “What if….?” thoughts are haunting you? Here’s 3 ideas to try:
1. Consider that “What if…? thoughts are generally an overestimation of the danger present and an underestimation of your ability to cope even if they come true:
In other words, we can tend to think that the consequence of our fears coming true is worse than it is, and we also think that our ability to handle difficult/bad things is not as good as it is! Sally* constantly worried, “What if my car breaks down on the freeway?” She believed that if her car broke down, she would not be able to cope. A few months after telling me her fear, Sally go! a flat tire while driving on the freeway! “It wasn’t nearly as bad as I imagined,” she reported, “I felt go flat and just pulled over to the shoulder. I called AAA with my cell phone and just waited for them. They came, put on the spare, and I was on my way! It was inconvenient, but I handled it just fine.”
Our ability to cope is generally much better than we imagine–even for the really tough, hard things that happen in life.
2. Talk Completely Through the Danger–be specific and consider the worst scenario
The most effective way to kill the “What ifs….?” is to actually have some of them happen and see that you handle the situation just fine. But—wouldn’t if be better to handle some of those “What ifs……?” without having to have bad stuff happen? Yes! One way to kill or vaporize the “What if…..?” thoughts is to directly face them and respond to them. This often requires you to think through more slowly and deliberately if your “what if’s…”" really happen. Here’s an example:
Joe* wanted to go on more dates, but he had a lot of social anxiety. He worried, “what if (insert name of woman here) rejects me?” That’s a valid fear, it might happen! But, this “what if” thought was helping Joe to avoid asking women out on dates. Here’s an abbreviated version of one of our conversations:
Me: “OK, let’s pretend Susie does turn you down. What happens next?”
Joe: “I don’t know–I guess I would be embarrassed.”
Me: “OK, what would it be like to be embarrassed? What would happen?”
Joe: “I don’t know–it just wouldn’t be good.” (Notice that Joe is vague here. This is not helpful–it will keep him stuck in the “what if… will be just by horrible” mode)
Me: “I want you to think specifcially what it would look like to be embarrassed. Does Susie point her finger at you, laugh, and run away from you?”
Joe: “No (laughing). She’s very sweet, and gentle. If she turns me down, it will probably be in nice, polite way. I would just feel bad, embarrassed.”
Me: “And that’s the worst that would happen, you’d have an uncomfortable feeling? Would she treat you differently later?”
Joe: “Yeah. That would be it. I’m sure she’d continue to be nice to me.
That’s an oversimplified version of our actual conversation–it can actually take much longer to specifically flush out the bottom line. For Joe it was that he feared embarrassment, but his conclusion was that while that would be a very uncomfortable feeling, it would not kill him. He decided that the possibility of having a date with the woman he is interested in was worth the risk of having an uncomfortable feeling.
3. Keep a Worry Log and see the actual outcome of your worries
A worry log is simply a record of your worries, your prediction of what will happen, and then the actual outcome. I recently worked with a woman who had a lot of worries about what it would be like to have a newborn baby. A few months after the baby was born she remarked, “I don’t even remember what I was worried about,” but I did–and repeated a list of her worries back to her. She laughed. “Having a baby for the first time is not easy, but none of those things I was worried about came true! ”
I challenge you to keep a worry log for awhile. It’s not that difficult, painful things don’t happen in our lives, they do! However, what we worry about often does not happen. And, what actually happens in life is not necesarily what we worry about!
Thanks for reading! –Dr. Jennifer Fee
*”"Sally” and “Joe” are made up names, and their situations are common to many, many clients with whom I have worked!
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Hi I am Dr. Jennifer Fee. The dog in the picture is really my dog. I took the sunset picture at Manilla Bay, Phillipines! Hi I'm Dr. Jennifer Fee. That is my dog Fresno in the picture!