This weekend we were playing scrabble with our children and my Mum who was visiting for my birthday, and we had an interesting conversation about which words we would add to the English dictionary and which words we would remove. One of the less well known phrases that I’d like to remove is the negative version of ‘what if’. To me, what if is a phrase that simply gets in the way, and if used negatively, simply sucks the joy out of life!
It seems obvious that the what ifs usually occur when we don’t know what is going to happen, it may be that we have a decision to make, maybe we want to leave our job or apply for a new one, maybe we are invested in an outcome of something like an exam or test, presentation or interview, or maybe we have an idea to take forward, maybe in our business or our personal lives. In a nutshell it’s when our status quo is disrupted, we are walking through life, quite happily, in the perceived knowledge that we know what will happen, our safety is guaranteed and then BOOM we are rudely reminded that actually our future is uncertain and we don’t actually know anything about it, let alone rely on it!
This sends us into a bit of a head spin and we start creating ‘what if’ stories, all the possible outcomes of what could happen ‘if’ whatever happens, then happens! It’s completely exhausting and I’ve known clients spend sleepless nights working out various scenarios, waste hours during the day predicting what could happen – often in the name of ‘making a decision’ only to find that they are no further forward and left hopelessly confused!
So why do we do this, well my view is that it’s because we have a very human need to know, with certainty, that we will be ok. Usually this is at the back of our mind, it’s not challenged, we simply assume that life will go on as it has done, but when we are reminded that the future is uncertain we start to worry that our inside ‘ok’ ness is as uncertain as our outside life and that part of the brain that is concerned with our safety suddenly springs into action. So it starts to go through every single possible permutation of what could possibly happen to the absolute nth degree, creating the biggest life monster you could possibly imagine, usually culminating in us not having an income, losing our jobs, our homes, our businesses, partners, affecting our kids, even death! Suddenly an interview for a job you have always wanted, results in you not being able to do it, being fired and losing your home! To top it all it feels so, so real!
This is because generally speaking this type of thinking comes from our Limbic brain, often called the Lizard brain, it’s very ancient, not equipped for 21st Century life, but it’s very emotional and deals with life and death – so this type of thinking does feel as though our lives depend on it, which is why it can be so exhausting.
However, even though it seems real, the trick is to remember that it simply isn’t real at all. The ‘what if’ thinking can’t tell you about what is going to happen in the future, because the future hasn’t happened yet, it just doesn’t have that ability to, neither does it prevent the future from unfolding in the way that it needs to unfold. It’s simply a scenario, a story that we are making up because we need to know that we will be ok. How many times have you dreaded something, had sleepless nights, only to find that it wasn’t as bad as it was going to be, that you were ok? I’m sure when you look back over your life there will be numerous times, so you will know, with certainty that you will be ok.
To me, if I’m going to look into the future, a future that is with certainty, uncertain, I’d rather create a wonderful story, a story where I’m ok and everything has worked out in the best possible way, because I know whatever happens I’m going to be ok, and if I’m going to make up a story I’d rather it was a good one! But probably more importantly, if on that one occasion, the worst did happen, I’d rather face it knowing that I wasn’t exhausted after having had countless sleepless nights worrying about it!
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