Disclaimers: 1. This post contains affiliate links, which pay me a small commission when readers make purchases through them. 2. I am not a doctor or medical professional. Though I hope you find this post insightful, it is not a substitute for the guidance of such a person. Please consult that professional when you need help.
When we dig toward the roots of our anxiety, what we often find is that, ahead of important events in our lives, we’re afraid the worst-case scenario will transpire. For example, before an important sales meeting, we might worry that we’ll say something that offends our client or causes them to choose a competitor. Or, prior to a playoff basketball game, we might fear airballing shot after shot and looking like a complete fool — all while letting our team down.
The interesting thing about such worries is that they’re all constructs of our minds. That is, before any meetings take place or games are played, these outcomes we fear aren’t real. They’re just images in our heads. But, as you’ve likely experienced before, they truly do feel quite real. That is, after all, what anxiety is: fear over what could be — not what has already happened.
As I discuss at length in my first book (found here), one of the most important things we can do ahead of scary situations is turn our focus away from such fears. It’s not always easy to do this, however; societal narratives often tell us to “face our fears” and “visualize ourselves achieving the outcomes we want.” Yet, for anxious folks like ourselves, such tactics can not only be dangerous, they can also exacerbate our fears dramatically.
This is because what you focus on you feel inside. Think about it. Do you have an important test, date, or event coming up? Quickly try thinking about that event going as poorly as it possibly could. Now, tell me, how does that feel? Probably pretty terrible, right? That’s exactly what we’re doing to ourselves most of the times that we’re anxious. Not exactly a winning strategy, as you could probably imagine.
Though the repression of or distraction from our fears is a strategy that works for many folks in terms of mitigating anxiety, it’s doesn’t necessarily guarantee that our worries won’t actually come to fruition when we get to the situation or scenario we’ve been fearing; even if we feel okay during such events, disappointing outcomes still can transpire. Even this fact, however, isn’t always as bad as it might seem.
Sizing Up The Worst Possible Outcome
There are a couple reasons why we fear worst-case scenarios so much. The first is, well, because they’re scary. Who would want to be embarrassed during a job interview or important athletic competition? I’d be lying if I said I would. The second is because, sometimes, we haven’t actually experienced a true worst-case scenario before and don’t know what it would actually feel like.
As it pertains to that second reason, when we haven’t actually been through what we’d deem a worst-case scenario before, we don’t have a great gauge on what exactly could happen or how likely it might be to occur. And when we don’t know exactly what could happen, our imaginations often run wild and predict all sorts of crazy things — things that, even if the event or scenario in front of us were to go as poorly as possible, are still very unlikely to happen. To make what I’m talking about a bit more concrete, I’d like to tell a story from a couple months ago.
I met this woman at a bar and got her number. We made plans to go out the next week. That first date ended up going pretty well, so we made plans to hang out again the following week.
Personally, I always find second dates a bit more daunting than firsts, since with the first, there’s so little commitment and investment. If it doesn’t go well, then it’s likely no big deal — especially if the person is not a mutual friend or colleague. In that scenario, you barely know them and they barely know you; you just say goodbye and go on your way.
But with second dates, the expectations are a bit different. With those, you’re basically saying, “I enjoyed hanging out with you enough to see where it goes.” With such a statement comes slightly more pressure.
Anyway, as such, I was a bit nervous heading into this date. However, I ran through my trusted ten steps (as I describe in the same book I referenced above), distracted myself from my fears in the days leading up to the date, and eventually got there with a pretty cool head.
The date was going along fine until I told a story that struck a nerve with this woman and made her pretty upset. I could see the emotion on her face and knew I’d said something I shouldn’t have. Long and short of it, I’d ruined the date and killed the moment. It’s hard to continue on with someone you don’t know that well after something like that. I did my best to defuse the situation, but it was just too much to overcome with someone I’d essentially just met.
After we parted ways that night, I went to bed a bit puzzled. Though I was of course disappointed that things didn’t go the way I’d hoped, I was also, strangely, a little relieved. I had done it. I had totally botched a date and lived through it. And to be honest, though it was what many people might consider worst-case scenario, it really wasn’t that bad. For the first time in a while, I’d come to terms with what that phrase really means. And, I realized, that most of the time, it doesn’t mean all that much.
Learning From Anxious Failures
Now I tell you that story not because I think you’ll care about who I’m dating, but to reiterate an interesting point about anxiety, in general: even when a really bad outcome results from an anxiety-provoking situation, it’s still usually not nearly as bad as what the depths of our minds have conjured up prior to the situation.
For example, ahead of almost any date, my anxious mind tries to get me to picture things going even worse than they did on the not-so-romantic encounter I described just a minute ago. For example, I might envision spilling my drink on my date and having her storm out of the restaurant, while she curses at me and the whole restaurant cheers her on. Again — very unlikely to happen — but still, that’s anxiety for you.
Now of course, this isn’t to say that every worst-case scenario is not that bad in real life or never going to happen. Before we do anything, we of course have to weigh the risks and decide whether we feel comfortable moving forward. But of course, for most of us that suffer from anxiety, the problem isn’t that we haven’t considered these possibilities before— it’s actually that we’ve turned them over in our minds ad nauseam.
Often, this ruminative thinking prevents us from taking action. This is doubly harmful because if we’re not doing the things we want to do (but are afraid of), that also means we’re not failing in such situations and potentially coming to the realization that many our fears aren’t as scary in real life as we’ve built them up to be in our minds.
For example, for an anxious person that has never flat out ruined a date before, the looming possibility of doing so is likely going to hang over him or her every time he or she leaves for the house for a rendezvous. Or, worse yet, it might even prevent him or her from going on that date in the first place.
However, for someone who has experienced such an outcome, his or her fears often don’t hold much water. That person sees such a potential and thinks, “I’ve been through it before and it really wasn’t as bad as I’d imagined, so I’m not going to worry about going through it again.” Such folks have come to see what their fear really is most of the time — a fraud — and they’ve done that by failing and learning. That’s what I mean when I say that sometimes the worst-case scenario isn’t always so bad when it comes to anxiety.
Thus, if we could just give ourselves permission to fail in the face of our fears, or if we could just be “lucky” enough to have that failure hit us squarely in the face, we might, counterintuitively, actually learn to stop fearing the possibilities that hold us back so often. And, in turn, we might be able to look our next bout of anxiety in the face and say, “Okay, I’m ready. Where to next?”
Thanks for reading! Want to learn more new perspectives on anxiety?
My first book, “Get Out of Your Head: A Toolkit for Living with and Overcoming Anxiety” is written about that very subject. You can find that book here. It covers many of the topics I discuss in my Medium posts, as well as a few new, key frameworks for managing fear.