A few weeks ago I found myself in a peculiar but not unfamiliar situation. I had a referral from my network and was set to talk with someone I didn’t know about a potential business opportunity.
Almost immediately I was feeling anxious, uncertain, and worried about the impression I would make and whether this unknown person would think I was competent and worthy of their business.
Over the course of the few days between scheduling the call and actually speaking with this person, I imagined all sorts of outcomes, mostly negative. I even imagined getting the business and then having multiple worst-case scenarios coming to life – before I had even gotten on the phone with my new acquaintance!
I knew this wasn’t productive but I couldn’t help it. My mind would drift off and suddenly I was thinking about some distant eventuality that would never materialize. I was projecting a future that would never be and driving myself mad in the process.
I know this isn’t unique to me, I’ve spoken to many of my clients about their tendencies to project the future, almost always in a negative way.
Of course, we can’t predict the future but more importantly, most of the time we have no basis for making the negative predictions that we do, or our judgment is based upon something that happened in the past and is unlikely to happen again. Why then is this such a common response when we’re presented with uncertainty in our lives?
It may help to know that if you experience a similar anxiety, you’re not alone. So much so that this affliction has a name: anticipatory anxiety.
If you stop to think about it, it’s no wonder we get caught up in predicting the future – our brains are constantly anticipating, calculating the odds of pain or pleasure and guiding us to avoid the former and seek the latter. When conditions are such that the waters are muddied and the appropriate course of action is uncertain, enter anxiety.
This makes sense, at its core it’s our essential survival mechanism. But not in the context of a phone call with a stranger or a job interview or taking a trip or even something particularly dangerous, say like climbing a mountain.
Interestingly, traditional psychological theory only recently pointed out that the central function of the human brain is to contemplate the future, not be driven by the past or present – as this New York Times editorial illuminates.
So how can we put the worry out of our minds and focus on what really needs our attention?
First, list the positive outcomes that are likely to emerge even if what you’re worried about comes true. For me and my phone date, this involved me getting to meet someone new and expand my network. It allowed me the opportunity to help advance someone else’s thinking and it allowed me to practice talking about myself and telling my story (talking about yourself can be awkward).
Second, shift uncertainty into curiosity. For me, this involved getting excited about getting to know who the person I would be speaking with was and what kind of challenge they were dealing with. I thought about questions I could ask and what ways I might be able to help. I immediately felt better after doing this.
Third, imagine a positive outcome. Easier said than done, I know and the power of positivity stuff can be hard to swallow, especially in the throes of a downward spiral. However, if so many people are talking about it, there’s got to be something to it, right? When it came to my phone call, I thought about being able to help and I thought about making a new friend. The trick for me was to remind myself of these positive outcomes right before I dialed the number when my anxiety was spiking.
Fourth, define the opportunities that will still exist even if your nightmare scenario comes true. We often overestimate the downside of something not going our way. Take a second to ground your assumptions in reality and test them. If my call didn’t go well, I wasn’t going to go broke or ruin my reputation, heck – the opportunity might not even be right for me anyway. I got WAY ahead of myself over a simple chat.
Fifth, note that even the sufferer’s of the most traumatic events often emerge as a stronger version of their previous selves, a phenomenon now known as post-traumatic growth or PTG. Look at people like Aron Ralston, the climber who had to amputate his own arm or Nelson Mandela, who endured 27 years as a political prisoner to become South Africa’s first black president. It can be difficult to imagine it in the hypothetical, but with enough time even the most negative experiences can be seen as something positive – as the Nietzsche quote goes: ‘That which does not kill us, makes us stronger’.
Sixth, talk to someone about it. Getting out of your own head and expressing what you’re thinking and feeling can have a therapeutic, even transformative effect. If you’re lucky, the person with whom you are speaking can provide some perspective and even reframe your thinking. I routinely talk with colleagues, friends, and family about my challenges and that helps me challenge my own thinking.
Overcoming our worry about the future and the uncertainty that lies within is no small feat, but with some practice, we can learn to reframe our anxieties and prevent them from hijacking our emotional well-being, while at the same time improving our chances for a positive outcome.