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Fantasies

2 Keys for Conquering Your Worst Case Scenarios

How can you take control of your catastrophic fantasies?

Catastrophe-Tornado/Flickr
Source: Catastrophe-Tornado/Flickr

We’re all gifted—or rather, cursed—with imaginations sufficiently vivid to make possible future catastrophes seem horrifyingly real. So how can you effectively counteract this universal tendency toward such self-torture?

Doubtless, it’s not through simply attempting to obliterate these negative fantasies. For that strategy works about as well as consciously trying not to picture a pink elephant. Merely seeking to blank out what you’ve already conjured a startling image of is guaranteed to fail.

So what are your alternatives? Here are two pivotal ones:

1. Tell yourself: “that still wouldn’t be the end of the line” (though in your imagination it can certainly feel that way).

It’s been said that the only way to get out of various mental or emotional quagmires is to go through them. For realistically, you may not be able to rise above them or (searching for safer ground) sneak below them. So, too, is it with your worst case scenarios. When they surface they literally “implore” you to pay closer attention to them. Yet—precisely because they are so scary—it’s extremely tempting to ignore them. But, as already suggested, this won’t work very well, for you’re likely to get periodic “hot flashes” persistently harassing you with their presence.

So, then, exactly how do you attend to what refuses to leave you alone?

Moving beyond what—at least subliminally—continues to bedevil you generally requires that you confront it directly. You need to explore what you’d do if in fact your very worst imaginings actually did become reality.

So if your business went bankrupt, you’d probably have to file for bankruptcy and make all sorts of adjustments to adequately cope with such a calamity. But the fact is that, sooner or later, most people do recover from major setbacks. True, initially they may experience shock and dismay—even become paralyzed for a while. But overall, we humans are a remarkably resilient species, and when we’re called upon to do so, we eventually figure out how to hit our reset button and begin anew. From within or without (and this is where friends can be invaluable), we’re able to heed the message: “This, too, will pass.”

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Or, say, you lost your entire family through some freak accident. Or, to evoke an even more remote contingency (though our ever-sensationalizing media might have you think otherwise), through some horrific terrorist act. No doubt you’d be obliged to go through a period of considerable anger, grief, and sorrow. But—as in the old saw— “life goes on.” At some point, the great likelihood is that you’d discover a way of starting anew. For typically the human organism seems genetically equipped to adapt to all sorts of life-changing conditions.

The point I’m making here is that our nature is “well wired” to survive most of the worst things we might fantasize. And if you remain stuck after some personal tragedy, a good therapist can probably help you resolve what you might not be able to on your own. So when you tell yourself that if such and such happened, it would be “the very death of you,” you need to stop yourself and also imagine—projecting yourself further still into the future—how over time you’d somehow manage to put the pieces of your life back together again.

In short, in your mind you need to go beyond all your worst case scenarios. Don’t make them the last chapter in some catastrophically imagined memoir, but add a finale that transcends such a period of misery, so that a happy ending can be visualized despite whatever grave misfortune preceded it.

Surely, you’ve turned things around in the past. So there’s no reason you can’t find some way to do so in the future. I’ve worked with many clients who, earlier in life, experienced some of the most unjust, appalling, or dreadful things you might conceive of. Having to endure all sorts of traumas, they truly seemed victims of fate. Yet, seemingly defying all laws of probability, they discovered ways to survive—and ultimately thrive. . . . And so can you.

2. Ask yourself: “what are the odds of these worst case scenarios actually happening?”

Your ability to visualize a future disaster says nothing about the probability of its occurrence. The problem, however, is that once you’ve contrived to make a disastrous possibility “real” by seeing it in your mind’s eye, it assumes a certain likelihood. So you need to calculate—as objectively, as rationally, as possible—the chances of such a catastrophic event ever taking place.

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

If, for example, you take the time to investigate the statistics on plane crashes, in light of the total number of planes flown within a particular time frame, you’ll realize that what you’re worrying about has far less than a 1 percent chance of happening. And the same could be said of an undetected brain aneurysm leading to sudden death; or the number of terrorist attacks on US soil, say, in the past 20 years; and so on. And yes, you can surely counter such a not-worth-worrying reality check by saying something like “...but women get raped all the time,” or “fatal car accidents (and earthquakes) do happen.” But again, ask yourself: “What are the odds?”

If your woeful fantasies—self-defeatingly—run away with you, you obviously haven’t yet learned how to keep them in check. And once they take root, they can become quite difficult to exterminate. So if you can’t help but imagine what would happen if your loved one died tomorrow, or your business venture (which you put your entire life savings into) were to fail, or some natural disaster (like the one you just witnessed on TV!) were to occur in your area, you need to curb your too-active imagination—and before it runs roughshod over you. Once again—as your existential mantra—reiterate to yourself, “ . . . yes, but realistically, what are the odds?”

Not to say you shouldn’t attempt to minimize how ruinous the toll might be if some highly improbable disaster were to befall you. For you almost always have the option of, say, getting high-end health insurance, or a policy that would cover you in the event of a devastating fire, flood, or tornado. In addition, if need be, there’s frequently a “Plan B” that you could put into place in advance. But it’s both silly and futile to dwell upon, or obsess about, such distant contingencies.

Although, unquestionably, it makes sense to pay due diligence and take reasonable precautions to protect yourself from calamitous possibilities, once you’ve done what you can to safeguard yourself from them, you need to accept that in the end none of us gets out of this existence alive. So it’s only prudent to accept the fact—deep down—that you (as everyone else) will remain forever vulnerable to life’s vicissitudes. Given life’s essential framework, then, why not take full charge of your life and live it as richly, meaningfully—and fearlessly—as possible?

It’s been said countless times that you should try to control what you can control and not worry about what you can’t. So once you accomplish this mental feat, you can begin to take in stride whatever fate may have in store for you.

. . . And that’s called “mastering life."

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Note 2: If you’d like to check out other posts I’ve done for Psychology Today online—on a broad variety of psychological topics—click here.

© 2016 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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