Those are perhaps the two most frightening words anyone has ever thought or spoken. I suppose you could say them in anticipation – like what if I win the lottery today? or what if I land that huge account and my business is an overnight success? or what if I get signed by a major publisher and I sell millions of copies of my novel?
I guess you could say it like that. But I almost always never do. It’s more like, as panic sets in, what if I’m stuck working in this dead-end job for the rest of my career? or what if I can’t find another job ever for all eternity? or what if I contract some incurable disease? or what if my book dies a horrible, slow death in anonymity?
Yeah, more like that. My what ifs tend to keep me up at night and gnaw at me during the day. Most of the time they catch me completely off guard. I’ll be going about my day, not too stressed, even looking forward to something I have planned, and then – boom – out of nowhere, what if…
It doesn’t even matter what the specific what if is. They all cause the same sense of doubt, panic, and unbelief that things could and should get better. They are paralyzing.
To be clear, I’m not talking about when you’re planning a project and you need to be able to plan for contingencies. I’m all for planning. I’m a big fan of planning. You need to be able to look into the future a little bit and understand what could go wrong so you can work around if it happens.
Those aren’t the what ifs I’m talking about, although they could be if you let them. No, these what ifs serve no practical function other than to keep you scared and where you’re at. These what ifs make you believe there is no possible way anything good could ever happen to you. These what ifs grab your heart and squeeze until you’re pretty sure you won’t be able to breathe ever again.
In case you’re wondering, I had an attack of the what ifs recently. I’m coming up on a milestone birthday and that seemed like the perfect time to think of all the things I wanted to accomplish by the time I reached it and haven’t.
Thankfully I’ve learned to shut the bad what ifs down. They are pretty easy to spot now because after the first couple cross my mind I can feel the panic set in. That’s usually a good indication that whatever I’m thinking is bad for me. So I take a few deep breaths, close my eyes, and picture a big stop sign in my mind – I’m a visual person. If that doesn’t work I say ‘no’ or ‘stop’ out loud – sometimes softly or if I’m alone I say it loudly and with more force.
I know that probably sounds odd, but it really works and it let’s me get back to whatever I was doing. It also stops the panic attack from really taking hold. Then I’m able to look at my life more objectively. I’m able to remind myself that no matter what’s going on there will always be questions and things I don’t know.
I can’t foresee the future and if I’m always trying to I’m going to drive myself – and everyone around me – bat shit crazy. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to do that anymore.
So, I’m going to practice my deep breathing and keep my mental stop sign handy today.
Who’s with me?