Fears, Beliefs, and Facts
The importance of differentiating one from the other.
Posted February 16, 2017
There is a strong tendency to confuse fears and beliefs from facts. In therapy sessions, I often hear statements such as, "I am definitely not going to get that promotion (raise, award, scholarship, etc.)" "She is not going to want to go out with me again!" or "There is no way I will get that mortgage I applied for." Certainly, there may be validity to some of these assertions or beliefs, but I wonder why optimism or hopefulness is missing when these individuals express themselves. Why are they not saying "I hope I get that promotion," or "I would like to think she'll go out with me again" and how does this affect their behavior?
People who suffer from depression tend to see much of life through a "dark" lens and are prone to doomful-sounding predictions and beliefs. Another reason why people worry and may be pessimistic is because they believe that worrying or imagining negative outcomes will prepare them if and when their negative predictions come true. When people are negative in order to prepare for a presumed negative occurrence, all that really happens is that they make themselves miserable. They are no more prepared for hurt or disappointment than if they had found a way to be hopeful instead. In fact, they probably would have been better off being hopeful since we know that optimism—as opposed to its opposite outlook—is associated with general well-being and better overall mental health.
A major problem associated with treating fearful predictions or worries as though they were facts is that the person might be prone to conduct themselves as though the feared disappointment or rejection has already occurred and they then behave accordingly.
A former patient's experience illustrates this phenomenon. Ernie, an unemployed elementary school teacher, was asked to try out for a new position by subbing for the regular teacher who was on a two-week sick leave. While believing he performed reasonably well, Ernie expressed certainty that he did not get the job: "I know I did not impress them and I know that I will not get the job...I just KNOW!" Unfortunately, Ernie found ways to feed his pessimism. He was told he would hear within a week or ten days. By day three, he was further convinced: "If they really wanted me they would have called immediately and not waited." He was treating his fear like a fact and, therefore, handled matters as though he had already been rejected for the position. I discovered in a subsequent session that he had been slow to submit additional information requested by the school and managed to "forget" to write the thank-you note he had planned to send. He acted as though it no longer mattered what he did or did not do since, as far as he was concerned, he had already been rejected for the position. I was pleased when he won the position fourteen days after his try-out because it was a powerful life lesson and he learned a great deal about himself and his self-defeating proclivities.
Amanda had a very similar experience. While excelling in all of her academic work, she had considerable difficulty feeling confident and comfortable in her social life. Her fears included expecting to be rejected by her peers, being excluded from various social activities, and generally being viewed as not "cool." Her self-esteem suffered as a result and she tended to act out her fears thereby making things worse than they otherwise might have been. When, to her great surprise, she was invited to a social event by one of the "in" crowd, she responded, "I'm surprised that you asked me. I don't think you really want me to go." Rather than savoring the 'victory' of this unexpected invitation, Amanda defeated herself by treating her fear as though it was a fact. She confirmed her fear by telling herself that if she was really welcome her classmate would have repeatedly urged her to attend. She was unaware of the burden that she was putting on her friend and instead saw this as proof of "undesirability." "See, they really did not want me" was her unfortunate and inaccurate conclusion. Therapeutic work with Amanda centered on strengthening her self-esteem, improving her coping repertoire, and being better able to challenge her tendency to project her fears onto others and operate in the world as though her fearful beliefs and assumptions were valid even when there was evidence to the contrary.
Whether one is an optimist by nature or a pessimist instead, it is important to keep perspective—especially under stressful or ambiguous circumstances—and to be able to differentiate fears and beliefs from presumed reality, so that one does not act in ways that are self-defeating or, worse, self-destructive. It is important to learn to give one's self the benefit of the doubt in circumstances like Ernie's and Amanda's as one way to challenge the tendency to confuse fears and facts and to be guided more by the latter rather than the former.