by Ruth Anne Mak
What if…we hear that a lot these days. It’s usually used to worry about what would happen if we ran out of gas or money, our kids got hurt, the mortgage was in foreclosure, someone got seriously ill, the economy collapsed, our political party lost the election, or what will happen if we aren’t perfect at work. There are many more “what if” fears we could list, and frankly they would fill pages, I would be exhausted writing them, and you would stop reading after the first few lines.
But we are human and we tend to worry, think the worst, and assume the worst about many things in our lives and the world in general. Well, to be fair not everyone thinks that way, but I would venture to guess that most of us think that way sometimes. I have caught myself thinking that way many times, and it changes my whole conversation with myself, my decisions, and how I interact with others.
I know a few people who are very shy, and when I ask them why it’s so hard to talk to people they often say they start thinking, “What if I say something wrong, or what if I can’t think of anything to say and look silly, or what if…”, and they have a whole list of things that might go wrong. I am not bashing shy people at all, and I think it’s interesting to see that when I ask them, “but what if you focus on them and find out you really do know what to say or they think you are awesome? What if they want you to explain something and you make a great friend or learn something from them? What if you find out they are shy too and you can share how that feels with each other? What if you never say anything to anyone and they think you don’t like them and feel really sad?”
Yes, I know it can be complicated when a person is shy, but my point is that if we get mired down in wondering what disasters might befall us if we take the new job, move, have a child, marry, go play on the beach, turn off our cell phones for a day, or get to a meeting a few minutes late, we can fall into the habit of seeing the glass as almost empty when it really isn’t most of the time.
I used to “what if” myself into feeling paralyzed with fear and doubt, but then one day it hit me that if I am so great at saying “what if” and constructing horrible scenarios in my head, then why not use my skill to create some great “what if” scenarios that are positive and don’t trigger fear and depression? So now when I catch myself starting to create imaginary disasters in my head I also ask myself a few other questions.
“What if I can’t finish this class I want to take and the money is wasted, I am embarrassed, and I feel like a failure? Maybe I shouldn’t take it!” I have gotten into the habit of flipping the negatives so it will become something more realistic.
“What if I work hard and do finish the class? What if the certification I earn helps me get a promotion and a raise? What if I feel good about myself and this all works out well?”
I don’t create positive scenarios that aren’t going to happen, since I do realize I will never be a tall male NBA player or be a natural math genius, but I have found that changing my outlook makes a big difference and has changed my life. If I convince myself that I can’t do well in the class I most likely won’t try it and surely won’t do well, and if I try it I just may do well and enjoy it! If I don’t, then the world really won’t end and I will not be a failure.
This idea also relates to what we hear on the news, what people say around the water cooler, and what we teach our kids about the world. Yes, scary things happen and it’s awful that so many people have misfortune happen to them. But that doesn’t mean the world is about to end or that we will find ourselves digging in dumpsters tomorrow for scraps since everyone will be homeless. Now things do happen and we can do our best to prepare, but living in fear doesn’t isn’t a very useful or pleasant way to live. If I “what if” the earthquake swallows me up, what if my neighbor is plotting something to do to me even though he didn’t do anything that would indicate it, what if my spouse cheats, what if the scary political party gets into office, or what if a meteor hits my house, then how can I make choices based on knowledge instead of fear?
I have found that if I prepare for what is likely, such as having life insurance or locking my car since I know there really are car thieves around sometimes, I can focus on what is more likely to happen. What if no earthquake happens and my neighbor is just a bit shy, my spouse is planning my birthday, and the day goes wonderfully? I want to be ready for that and I know that I’ve lived through many terms of office of all parties and survived. If a meteor happens to hit my house I want to be living my life and choosing what I want to do and who I want to be, and maybe I won’t even be home that day. What if I’m out with my wonderful spouse accepting my certificate for that class I passed with flying colors? What if something bad happens? I will be okay, and then I’ll do my best to make something good happen.
So what do you tell yourself? Wouldn’t it be great to see possibilities and imagine great things? What if we all did that? Can you imagine what we could accomplish? What if we work together to make a difference and change the things we were so afraid of into things we can be proud of? What if we plan for those disasters and we make it through them together? Can you imagine what we could do? What if we start right now in our own little corner of the universe and “what if” ourselves into helping each other and making a difference? I’m willing to do it and I hope you will too, because if we don’t, the “what if” may not so pleasant. Come on, give it a try! What if it turns out to be awesome?