Several weeks ago, Matt and I were driving to my office together. As we drove, I noticed a knot in my stomach. We were testing out some new lighting equipment for my YouTube videos, and I couldn’t help but feel a sense of dread. The closer we got to my office, the more anxious I became. “This is going to be a mess,” I thought. “The equipment isn’t going to work. It’ll take forever to get right. It’ll be a nightmare.” My brain instantly ran through all of the ways that things could go wrong. All of the ways it would be a disaster. We hadn’t even walked into my office, and I was already predicting the worst.
Does this situation sound familiar? Maybe not with technology or video lights, but maybe with relationships, work projects, or stuff around the house. Do you find yourself predicting that things will go wrong before they even start? Do you think of all the ways you could flop or fail before you attempt something? Or do you feel anxious, convinced that things will be bad before you even do them?
If so, you’ll be relieved to know that you’re not alone. I’m a psychologist, equipped with tons of tools and tricks for dealing with anxiety, and my brain still does this. At least initially. Thinking that things will go wrong before they even start is such a common issue, especially if you’re someone that tends to skew toward anxious. This habit may seem harmless at first. In fact, it might even seem helpful, preparing you for what could go wrong. But over time, this habit of thinking how things will go wrong before you even start can become overwhelming. And it can become a huge source of anxiety.
But first, it’s important to acknowledge that it’s normal to think about how things will go. It’s normal to make predictions. And it’s normal to try and think through things before you do them. If you’re going to approach your boss about a difficult issue, it’s normal to think about the variety of ways they might respond. If you’ve got a doctor’s appointment coming up, and you’re waiting on some health news, it makes sense to think of the scary things your doctor might say.
The problem, however, is that so often, when you do this, you only think about the negative. You only think about how things will go poorly. You only imagine all the ways things will go wrong or how you’ll struggle, fail, or flop. And this is a huge problem. Because it gives your brain a skewed perspective. It’s well documented that your thoughts are directly connected to your emotions. How you think impacts how you feel. So when you only see how things will go wrong, you give your brain a false reality. You only see some of what might happen, not all of what might happen. And this is a recipe for significant anxiety.
But thankfully, you’re not stuck with your thoughts as they are. You have the ability to think different. You have the ability to challenge and change your thoughts. So, when you find yourself predicting that things will go wrong, when you find yourself focusing on possible negative outcomes, here’s what you need to do. Acknowledge what could go wrong. Then acknowledge what could go well.
Your brain will only want to see the bad, the negative, and the scary. And I won’t ask you to not see those things. Because those things are possibilities. And seeing them might help you be prepared. So go ahead, acknowledge how you could fail. Acknowledge the scary diagnosis. And acknowledge that people might laugh. But in addition to those things, challenge your brain to see the good things. The ways that things could work out, go well, and turn out positively. Those are possibilities too. And when you acknowledge those, you present your brain with a more realistic and balanced perspective. And when you do that, you’ll notice an almost instant reduction in anxiety.
Pitching an idea to your boss and afraid they’ll shoot you down? Acknowledge what could go wrong. Then acknowledge what could go well. Maybe they will shoot you down. Maybe they’ll hate it. Or maybe they’ll love it. Maybe they’ll ask for some time to think it over. Or maybe they’ll give you public props for thinking outside of the box. Trying a new hobby or sport and afraid you’ll look stupid? Acknowledge what could go wrong. Then acknowledge what could go well. Maybe you will look stupid. Maybe people will laugh. Or maybe you’ll be a natural. Maybe you’ll just be average. Or maybe no one will be paying attention. Maybe someone will notice that you’re new and strike up a friendly conversation.
Your brain loves to see worst case scenario. It’s a weird protective mechanism that most humans have. (See exactly why your brain does this here.) But this habit of predicting that things will go wrong? It’s not exactly protective in today’s modern world. So train your brain to see things differently. Brainstorm a variety of outcomes, not just the awful ones. Challenge your brain to see all the possibilities. As Matt and I got closer to my office a few weeks ago, I realized how quickly my thoughts were spiraling. I caught myself predicting only a few, negative outcomes, ignoring how things might go well. Or even just ok. So I stopped, took a breath, and acknowledged what could go well.
It’s important to note that this trick isn’t about convincing yourself that things will go well or that nothing bad will happen. There’s no way to know how things will play out. And seeing just the positive? That’s not healthy either. (See why here.) But by challenging your brain to see a wide variety of possible outcomes, you’re taking your brain from having one certain and awful outcome to having five to ten possible outcomes. And when you do this, when you help your brain see all of the potential ways things could play out, your anxiety will take notice.
So remember, acknowledge what could go wrong. Then acknowledge what could go well. Get creative. Think outside the box. And stretch your brain to see new possibilities!