You reach for the mug and knock it over. Hot coffee washes over your laptop.
You arrive home and realize you’ve left your bag, with all your IDs, on the subway.
Your doctor reads your EKG and says, “Hmm. I’ve never seen anything like this before.”
Life dishes out disasters, big and small. How we react to them says much about our character and our ability to enjoy a happy, successful life.
If I can’t find my wallet, I’m prone to think it’s been swiped by someone who’s going to steal my identity and empty my bank accounts.
Waiting for the results of any sort of medical test, I imagine the worst.
That, for some reason, is how I’m wired.
My wife, K, is the opposite. She’s a natural optimist. And when people like me have a worst-case scenario in our head, optimists like K will tell us not to worry about it. They’ll remind us, quite correctly, that there’s a good chance something less than the worst will occur.
But such advice is useless. For us, life is a very scary movie. Not thinking about the worst that can happen is not an option.
However, it is possible to develop mental habits that’ll help us overcome our fears and respond to crises – real or imagined – in a positive way.
Recently, my nephew got into some trouble at school and told me it had really messed him up. He couldn’t sleep, couldn’t study, could barely eat, etc.
Knowing what I knew about the situation, I believed he was overreacting. But I knew that telling him not to worry would be useless – even counter-productive because fear and anxiety are deeply planted emotions that can’t be commanded away.
It would also have been useless for me to try to convince him that his worst fears are imaginary. They are real to him and there is always a possibility that they will come true.
So I told him to do what I do whenever I am extremely anxious. I do what I call making friends with the devil.
Here’s how it works:
- Don’t try to deny the fear. Accept it as a possibility.
You’ve got a lump in your breast or you’ve dropped weight inexplicably. Your worst fear, of course, is that you have terminal cancer.
It can help to do some research and discover that the chances you have terminal cancer are only 30% or 10% or whatever. But allow yourself the liberty to imagine that your worst fear turns out to be true.
When I do this I imagine the fear in detail. I imagine my doctor’s face giving me the bad news.
Then I also imagine my reaction. Not the reaction I might otherwise have – panic, dread and emotional paralysis, but something shockingly different.
This I do as if it were a film I’m watching.
I’m sitting in my doctor’s office and he gives me the bad news. Then the camera zooms in for a close-up: a smile coming over my face.
The doctor looks at me, confused. “Mr. Ford, did you hear what I said? You have stage 4 cancer!”
“Yes, doctor,” I see myself saying. “I understand quite clearly.”
And then I stand up, shake his hand walk out the door, still smiling, while he watches me… dumbfounded.
I’ve not had to do this with the fear of terminal cancer. But I’ve done it many times with the fear of losing all my money.
In that movie the doctor is replaced by Gary, my accountant. “I have no idea how they stole your identity and all your financial assets, Mark,” he says. “But the fact is… you are broke.
Again I’m calm, cool and collected. I walk out the door feeling fine – even a bit elated because I have a worst-case plan already worked out in my head.
2. Work out a worst-case plan of action.
The simple act of picturing yourself being okay with some disaster is powerful. It gives you an option in terms of your immediate reaction. The more frequently you imagine that terrible moment and your benign reaction, the easier it will be for you to actually respond that way.
But you also need a Disaster Plan, a course of action were you respond to the situation by doing something that you’d like to see yourself doing. Something wise and practical and admirable. Some positive action that benefits you and others.
A torn ligament might put you in bed for a few weeks. But it can also give you a chance to read all the books you’ve been meaning to read.
A sudden loss of all your money gives you the chance to start over again and repeat all the smart things that made you money while avoiding the foolish things you regret.
And that terminal cancer? It’s a chance to become the very best version of yourself and spend the rest of the time you have being the person you most want to be.
- Begin to carry out your disaster plan immediately.
You don’t have to wait until you know for sure whether the worst-case situation occurs or whether something less problematic, perhaps nothing at all, comes to pass.
What I do is begin to act on my disaster plan. I start making the positive changes I’ve already decided I will make if worse comes to worst. What I’ve found when I do this is that my level of anxiety immediately drops and continues to drop as I move forward with my Plan B.
Usually, the worst-case scenario does NOT occur. Instead, you find yourself dealing with Some lesser, less scary and less troublesome situation.
This then comes to you as an added and almost unexpected bonus. You were doing fine taking action on Plan B. More than likely you’ll continue in that direction because it improves you and feels good. So the net result of all this is that instead of anxiety ruining your life and robbing you of happiness, you take charge of your reaction and get a valuable benefit from it. Even when your fears turn out to be totally unfounded.
In short… If the worst does happen, you’ll be ready, relaxed and making the best of it. If it doesn’t, you’ll be thankful and on your way to becoming a better version of the person you are now.