Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

Ditch This One Self-Sabotaging Mental Habit

Ease your mind and cultivate peace and happiness.

“The foolish reject what they see, not what they think; the wise reject what they think, not what they see.” —Huang Po

After a friend sold her first novel to a publisher, her sales went through the roof, and she won several writing awards. But she told herself it was a fluke, that the next book would probably be a dud.

I was floored. It’s amazing how many people unwittingly sabotage their careers with the self-defeating mental opposition called forecasting—your mind’s tendency to predict negative outcomes despite positive circumstances. Unless you have the skills of a meteorologist, forecasting the worst without proof doesn’t make it true. It simply makes you miserable.

 Photo By Anh Nguyen On Unsplash
Source: Photo By Anh Nguyen On Unsplash

If you’re like most people, your mind overestimates threats of the unknown, forecasts a negative outcome, collects evidence to support it then waits for the ax to fall. My author friend’s negative predictions discounted, minimized, and ignored the positive events that contradicted how she thought of herself. Despite everything coming up roses, she suffered the misery of her negative predictions—even though they never came true.

The What Ifs

Forecasting often shows up in your mind as what ifs—the cruel ghosts that haunt you day and night “What if I’m not chosen for the position?” “What if I catch the flu before the party?” “What if the argument leads to a breakup?” “What if there’s a terrorist attack?”

What ifs are endless exaggerated thoughts streaming through your mind that you latch onto as fact—worries that interrupt your enjoyment of the present moment. You imagine the worst-case scenario and play it over in your mind.

Truth be told, most things you worry about never happen or at least not in the way you imagine. What ifs are out-of-the-moment episodes that disconnect you from the present and keep you stuck in a gloomy future that usually never comes true. Your mind magnifies concerns about a situation and you end up stressing over a magnification of the problem, not the real problem. When what ifs take over, they eclipse the truth about your capabilities to overcome challenges. And they factor out other possibilities at play of which you have no knowledge.

Sometimes you have to wait for an outcome to convince yourself of an exaggerated forecast. Other times you can get a reality check from friends or coworkers. But the best stress-reduction rule is to suspend your what ifs until you have convincing evidence. Staying open to the future and letting things happen instead of thinking about how they might happen or trying to make them happen to suit you can alleviate your stress.

When you wait to connect the dots after, instead of before, the hard evidence is in, you’ll discover that what ifs are unreliable sources of information most of the time. Finding the hard evidence first before jumping to conclusions saves you a lot of self-loathing, unnecessary worry, relationship problems, and time.

So, why worry? Ditch any unfounded beliefs before entering an uncertain moment in your life. And give the new job or relationship a chance to speak for themselves before writing them off to what ifs.

Use Hindsight to Turn Foresight into 20/20

Here’s how to turn foresight into 20/20: The next time a what if clouds your mind before an uncertain situation, intercept it and notice your internal reaction. Think of yourself as a private detective and ask, “Where’s the evidence for this conclusion?” You won’t find any because there is none. Your evidence lies in hindsight.

Think back to a few weeks or a month ago. Track some of the negative predictions you made about future events that have since happened. Write down some of the worries you had about a rained-out ball game, missing your plane, failing a test, or someone not liking you. Beside each negative conclusion, circle the worries that turned out the way you thought they would. Star the ones that turned out the exact opposite of your prediction. Chances are you’ll have more stars than circles. When all is said and done, you won’t find evidence for your what ifs; you’re more likely to find evidence that contradicts them.

Next time the what ifs slam you, remember that it’s not an upcoming event that stresses you but the way you’re thinking about and treating yourself before the situation takes place. You’re unwittingly rejecting the truth and accepting what you think. Then use that proof to revise your cloudy forecast to sunny skies, and start asking positive what if questions: "What if I get the promotion?" or "What if the wedding goes off without a hitch?"

Facebook/LinkedIn image: cloki/Shutterstock