“The mind, which is most capable of receiving impressions, is very often the least capable of drawing conclusions.”—Virginia Woolf
If you’re like most people, you have an inner Fortuneteller that makes up negative stories—called what-ifs—about what the future holds before it ever happens: “What if I can’t reach the deadline?” or “What if I flop in the job interview?” or “What if I get a bad performance review?” What-ifs are endless exaggerated thoughts streaming through our minds that we latch onto as fact—worries, warnings and ruminations that interrupt our enjoyment of the present moment. They magnify a concern with the worst-case scenario, play the distorted picture over in our minds, and we end up stressing over a magnification of the problem, not the real problem.
Whether you are aware of it or not, you have an inner Fortuneteller. Suppose your boss walks by your desk. You hook eye contact with her, smile and nod. She looks straight at you, but doesn’t acknowledge your presence. She might as well be staring at the wall. “Holy cow,” you say to yourself. “I must be in hot water.” You shrink inside, ruminating over what you might have done to deserve her dismissal of you. Your heart races, and you feel shaky. Sleepless nights stalk you just a few days before your performance evaluation. You toss and turn as what-ifs spin with the made up story, and you buy it hook, line and sinker.
The day of your evaluation, your boss calls you into her office. Your stomach flip-flops. You tremble the way you did in sixth grade when you were summoned into the principal’s office. But, to your shock, she greets you with a smile and gives you a glowing performance evaluation. Not only are you not in hot water, but she also calls you a highly-valued team member, a laudable success—the exact opposite of what your Fortuneteller predicted and a feather in your cap. All that worry and rumination for nothing, but the stress of the made-up story has already taken a toll as the body bears the burden.
Science shows that 90% of the what-ifs are false alarms that rarely happen, at least not in the way the Fortuneteller predicts. Had you thought about it, you might have realized there are several benign reasons your boss didn’t acknowledge you when she walked by your desk. Perhaps she was distracted by her own worries, deep in thought over an upcoming meeting or simply just didn’t see you. But your Fortuneteller jumped into action without your permission, focusing only on the disastrous possibilities, blowing your thoughts out of proportion and sending you into spirals of rumination.
Sometimes you must wait for an outcome to convince yourself of an exaggerated forecast to reveal itself. Other times you can get a reality check from friends or coworkers. But the best solution is to be mindful of your mind and suspend the what-ifs until you have convincing evidence to the contrary. 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 a “distress fest.” 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.
The next time a what-if stampedes you, recognize that your Fortuneteller has taken over and thrown your rational thinking offline. Think of yourself as a private detective. Intercept the what-if and ask, “Where’s the evidence for this conclusion?” This action opens your “thinking mind,” enlarges your perspective and gives you an objective and rational picture that won’t find evidence for the story because there is none.
Your evidence lies in hindsight. You will discover it’s not an upcoming event that stresses you but the way you think about and treat yourself before the event. Your Fortuneteller unwittingly rejects the truth and accepts what it thinks to be true, not the actual truth. Flip that pattern around, and use the 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 interview goes off without a hitch?”
Think back to a few weeks or a month ago. Track some of your Fortuneteller’s negative predictions. Write down some of the stories it made up about a rained-out ball game, missing your plane, failing a test or someone not liking you. Beside each negative conclusion, circle the stories that fit with the prediction. Star the ones that turned out the exact opposite of your Fortuneteller’s prediction. Chances are you’ll have more stars than circles.
Think of a what if that has been hounding you lately. As it whispers to you, notice what happens inside your body. Your stomach might flip-flop, or your chest might tighten. Now reverse it. Whisper to yourself a positive prediction: “What if my business flourishes?” or “What if a promotion comes from my hard work?” Again, notice the difference of how something lifts in your body, which also bears the burden of potential good news.