Do you ever notice your mind jumping to the worst case scenario when something happens? Or even when nothing has happened yet, if you’re just thinking about something that might happen in the future?
For example, I have a friend who constantly worries about being fired from her job when things might happen outside of her control.
I find it fascinating that (at least verbally, to me) she doesn’t worry about upsetting her boss, or getting demoted, or getting written up, or being put on probation.. As soon as she thinks something might not happen as planned, she immediately thinks “I’m getting fired.”
This also comes up when she asks about things at work – she has told me that she was hesitant to submit a vacation request because she was nervous she would get fired – not nervous that her request would be denied, or nervous that they would revoke her vacation balance – just immediately fired! That is the best example of jumping to the worst case scenario that I can think of.
This episode is about how we might tend to consider the worst case scenario as a default thinking habit – but it’s just as easy or as likely to consider the best case scenario! And out of those 2 options, I think one is much more helpful than the other!
Here are some of my own examples:
I should apply for that job – I probably won’t get it.
I should call my friend to see if she wants to hang out today – last minute style – she’s probably busy.
I wonder if I should ask my sister for help – she probably doesn’t want to be bothered.
When we think about the worst thing that could happen, we’re coming from a place of scarcity and fear. It makes sense that our brain would naturally default to scarcity and fear – or in other words conservation and protection.
Applying for a job takes energy and it means putting myself out in the open to be evaluated and judged.
So, if my brain wants to conserve energy for me and protect me from possible judgement and rejection – it just jumps directly to the worst case scenario. In fact, the example I gave a minute ago saying that the worst case scenario would be not getting the job is probably not really what my brain would tell me.
More likely, in the spirit of conserving my energy and protecting me from rejection, my brain would probably convince me that I’ll bomb the interview, and they’ll ask me questions I don’t know the answers to, and I’ll make a fool of myself and they’ll laugh at me, and even the receptionist will look at me with contempt wondering why I wasted everyone’s time. Thanks brain! Thanks, but no thanks!
When we think about the BEST thing that could happen, we’re coming from a place of abundance and love. So back to the “applying for a job” example – what if instead of thinking I would be rejected, what if I thought I’d be welcomed in with open arms!
What if I applied for the job with the thought that I’m the perfect fit for the company and they’ll be so happy to hire me. What if I charm them all during the interview, and it’s a lot of fun and they review my qualifications and tell me they actually want to hire me for a different, better paying, more well-suited to me job that they hadn’t even posted yet?! Wouldn’t that be amazing! Wouldn’t I feel excited and happy to apply for the job and walk into that situation with hope and optimism, and confidence! And by the way, if you were interviewing people for a job, would you hire the person who was trying to conserve energy and was afraid of being judged, or would you hire the optimistic, confident candidate? See how much better the best case scenario is compared to the worst case scenario?
The summer I turned 13, my family took a trip to Scandinavia. Here is an example of how my little pre-teen brain just assumed the best case scenario. This story makes me sound very old and quaint, but I love it, so I’m going to tell it anyhow.
In my circle of friends, at that time in my life, we all had these little books called posie books. They were basically like autograph books and we would give them to each other to write vows of friendship or notes of admiration or favorite poems or drawings or whatever. These could be simple like a couple of lines of handwritten text with a black ink pen, or creative, with multiple colors of markers and adorable drawings, or these entries could be downright artistic 3D masterpieces – my 5th grade teacher (yes, I was the nerd who asked my teacher to sign my book) made a beautiful pressed flower arrangement for me in the pages of my posie book and wrote a touching, encouraging message. So basically, these were like little yearbooks without the photos and we used them all year long, not just at the end of the year. And I had one.
Here’s where the best case scenario story comes in- one summer, my family took a trip to Scandinavia which is the region of the world where Norway is located, which is the home of the 80s pop band A-Ha who was the most important band at that time. I was 100% sure I would run into at least 1 or all 3 members of A-ha while I was in Norway. I was hoping it would be Paul, he was my favorite, but I would also be fine if it were Magne or Morten.
So, because I had envisioned this Best Case Scenario for sure happening, I carried my posie book with me to every viking ship museum, city park, and tourist attraction we visited because I wanted to be able to get them to sign my book when we met them. And Guess What Happened that Summer in Norway!..
I didn’t meet A-ha. I didn’t get their autographs. I went home with my posie book full of drawings and poems from my fellow 13 year old friends and my teacher from 2 years earlier. And it’s totally fine! I had a great summer. No disappointment, and I have this adorable memory to think about 30 years later.
And to be completely honest, I probably haven’t even thought of that story since that summer until I was trying to think about examples in my life when my mind naturally assumed the best case scenario. So while I am so proud of my 13-year old past self for assuming the most positive thing she could imagine would happen on a trip to Norway, I’m also aware of how out of character it must have been for me when I was 33, or even as recently as 43.
When and how did my default thinking flip over to worrying about the worst case scenario instead of imagining the best case scenario? And how can I flip it back? Has my imaginative confidence been dormant since I was 13? What’s the opposite of confidence? Is it Fear?
My imaginative Fear has probably been taking center stage most of the time. I’ve been really good at imagining all the terrible things that could possibly happen.
I think I still defaulted to the best case scenario for many things throughout the rest of my teenage years and into my early 20s. When I think about how I moved around internationally, and changed majors, and just started new careers with excitement and confidence, I must have had an attitude of “I can do that” or “this spontaneous unplanned scheme will work out great!”
And when I compare that attitude to the attitude I had just last year when my husband sprung a bathroom remodel on me one Saturday and I basically had a complete meltdown because even though we had been talking about it for almost a year, – I hadn’t planned and prepared for it yet and it was probably going to interrupt my routine and we wouldn’t be able to get the best deals on materials because we didn’t have time to comparison shop and what if the contractor didn’t show up after we paid him and what if the tile we had chosen was on back order and wasn’t available during the time we had hired the contractor for and.. And.. and.. You can see how I whipped myself up into a worst case scenario frenzy for no good reason.
I was worried about things I couldn’t possibly know or predict, yet I was letting those thoughts dump cortisol into my body and I was letting the feelings generated by those scarcity and fear thoughts cause me to act snippy and moody.
I’m not proud of how I behaved.. And how I treated my husband during that bathroom remodel. And it was all for no reason, because the bathroom turned out perfectly and was almost finished exactly on schedule! And we ended up recommending the contractor to other people.. And using him for another job.
So, back to the question, how can I flip my default thinking back to Best Case Scenario?
Here’s how I’m trying to do it.. And I hope you’ll try it too and let me know how it goes:
Awareness, Habit and Grace.
I’m trying to be aware of my thoughts and feelings in the moment. I’m trying to notice when my mind swings to the worst case scenario and notice that what I’m thinking might happen isn’t necessarily the only possible outcome.
It’s usually much easier for me to recognize this worst case scenario thinking in other people because I’m not in their situations and my brain isn’t giving me the same fear and scarcity alerts they are getting from their brains.
So my practice of awareness extends to noticing it in other people, my friends, and family and clients as they describe what’s going on for them.
When I notice “oh, she’s coming up with a worst case scenario” I try to summon the most optimistic part of my imagination to think of a possible “best case scenario.” Depending on who I’m talking to, I might share it with them.. Or I might just keep it to myself and count it as practicing this skill I’m trying to learn.
Which leads me to the 2nd part of my experiment, I’m trying to create a habit of immediately thinking of the Best Case Scenario when I’ve caught myself believing a Worst Case Scenario.
This does 2 things for me. It shows me that the default thought isn’t the only thing I could think in this moment, and it creates a spectrum from worst to best so I can see that so many things are possible between the 2 ends- and while I probably won’t truly believe the crazy best case scenario I come up with for myself, any of the options closer to that end than the other are possible and probably more helpful for me to think about.
An example of this is when we were on vacation in Boston and we decide to take the water taxi back to the airport. As soon as we got down to the dock to get on the boat, I felt it pitching up and down with the lapping waves and I remembered “I get sea sick” and this was probably not the best plan.
What if I throw up on the way to the airport? And what if my suitcase falls off the boat into the Boston Inner Harbor.. then what would I change into for the 5-hour flight back home?
So, if I catch myself in that moment, I can proactively think of a Best Case Scenario, what if, instead of throwing up on the water taxi, we end up meeting another really cool passenger who invites us to hang out with him in the United Club as his guest before our flight?
Well, neither of those scenarios happened.. We got to the airport without incident and hung out at a cool little wine tasting restaurant right outside of our gate until it was time to board. It was perfect!
See how after I thought of the worst case scenario- I filled in the other end of the spectrum with a possible best case scenario? And then I landed much closer to that end than to the other end.
So that’s the habit I’m trying to cultivate- to remember to provide myself with a Best Case Scenario when I notice I have come up with a Worst Case scenario.
The 3rd part of this experiment is to give myself grace when I don’t catch myself in time. I’m not going to beat myself up for indulging in worry and uncertainty and fear. I’m not going to berate myself because I didn’t notice that my thought made me feel stressed and caused me to spin out a little bit.
By the way.. I also think there might be something like a stress spiral: once you believe 1 stressful thought, your brain goes to work looking for other things to worry and stress about and then you have to deal with all of those instead of just the first one.
The other thing I’ve learned about being aware of my own thoughts, is that, for me at least, self-judgment come along with self-awareness. So, before I learned how to notice my thoughts, and consider them without believing them, I just assumed everything I thought was true – good or bad. Now that I know my thoughts aren’t true, and I know I don’t want to think some thoughts, when I do think them, I may judge myself and tell myself I know better than this.. And why am I doing it?
So, that’s where grace comes in. I’m a human with a brain that’s trying to protect me, so it’s natural that I’ll come up with worst case scenarios even when I’m not trying to. So, when I do I can give myself grace. And, if there’s still time, maybe I can go ahead and think of a fun best case scenario too!
When I go to the worst case scenario, I can notice how imaginative and creative and convincing my mind is and I can be grateful for that imagination and creativity and then, I can use that imagination and creativity and persuasiveness to think of an equally powerful BEST case scenario.
The worst case dumps cortisol into my bloodstream and the best case gives me a hit of Dopamine – I’d rather have the Dopamine!
The worst case may still be helpful for me – to a degree- it may show me flaws or gaps that I can mitigate, and the best case also opens my mind to possibility and acceptance!
That’s it! That’s what I wanted to share with you today! I just wanted to remind you to think of the best case scenario whenever your mind offers you the worst case scenario. Notice what you’re coming up with, build that imaginative habit and if you forget, just catch it next time.
And now I want to know your thoughts and your reactions. What questions do you have about Worst case/best case (or as the cool kids say, WCBC)?