So, like anyone, there are certain tasks & situations that I’m afraid of. Stupid, normal, everyday encounters that nevertheless I find nerve wracking and difficult. I avoid these situations, anticipating them with dread. I blow them off if I can, and I procrastinate if I can’t. And even when I’m forced, or force myself, to confront this difficult thing, I feel anxious and tense when I do.
Obviously, I feel this way because I have a lot of negative expectations of the situation in question. It stands to reason. I had a lot of intensely negative experiences in similar situations when I was a kid, and they’ve stuck with me. I’m sure that’s how it is with a lot of people’s big fears.
I’m writing this because it really hit me today that I usually don’t even know that I have these expectations. I mean; I know… how else could I talk about them? But I forget. They’re automatic; like reflexes. The situation presents itself, and I immediately want to run from it without thinking. “Why can’t I do this?” I ask. “I just don’t want to,” comes the reply.
But it also hit me that, now that I understand this, viscerally, the solution is obvious. Change my expectations. How do you change habitual expectations? Well, athletes have understood this for years: rather than anticipate the experience with cringing dread, visualize the situation going smoothly instead.
These are not just words. Do it. If you know you’re about to go into a challenging situation, picture it going well. Imagine it as vividly as you can—see it, hear it, smell it, touch it in your mind. Write down a little story about how well it went (past tense!) and how you confidently handled any difficulties that arose. Then go into the situation voluntarily.*
Even if things do go badly, at least it won’t be because your anticipatory anxiety got in the way. At least you’ll be able to feel good about the fact that you faced up to it.
Practice this. Do it whenever you have to do something (or think about something) that makes you nervous. Try it for a week or three.**
Think about it logically: If you always expect catastrophe, you’ll never be disappointed. Things can always get worse. But if you expect things to go well, well, you could be wrong, but you’ll often be right, too.
Your expectations are your definition of “normal.” When your expectations are confirmed by events, you feel validated, even if what you expected was a tragedy. Our brain gives us a little hit of dopamine, which makes us feel good, whenever our motivational attitudes are affirmed. Conversely, when our expectations are violated, unless the situation is really major, we may not even notice at all; and if we do, we feel weird and uncomfortable about it. We’ll downplay it as a rare anomaly, and we’ll have a hard time remembering the event later.
This is (more or less) what Psychologists call the Confirmation Bias: The tendency to highlight information that confirms our beliefs, and to discount information that contradicts them.
But here’s the other thing: Our expectations are just our attempt to use the past to predict the future. But the actual future is completely uncertain to us. Regardless of the odds, there are no guarantees. Anything could happen… and that means that whatever our expectations are, there’s always an even chance that we’ll be right.
So that’s the real stinker about negative expectations: even if you were right, something crappy just happened. And if you were wrong, even though something good happened, you’ll probably just shrug it off as a freak occurrence and go back to feeling lousy. It’s lose-lose.
But if you go in with a positive expectation? If you were right, you’ll get the double-win of validation combined with a real positive outcome. And if you were wrong? Unless it’s something truly catastrophic,*** you’ll probably just shrug it off as a freak occurrence, and go back to feeling Awesome.
So, if you want to be Awesome, you have to make sure your expectations are positive. If your reflex is to imagine the worst, then you’ll have to actively work at imagining something reasonably good instead. Any time the worry or dread comes up, that will be your cue to imagine yourself succeeding and confidently solving whatever problems might arise.
I mean, come on. What’s the best that can happen?
* According to U of T Psychology Professor Jordan B. Peterson (in his numerous lectures available on YouTube), there’s two attitudes a person can adopt when they encounter an uncertain and threatening situation. They are: Approach and Avoidance. In an Avoidance stance, a person forced to confront the situation will be terrified and/or angry, and their body will be flooded with stress hormones, which are toxic and can even cause brain damage if they persist long enough. But in an Approach situation, the person has more of an exploratory attitude. Even if the situation is actually difficult or harmful, the person won’t be as stressed as they would be if they were in the Avoidance stance. This is why it’s important to face our fears voluntarily, if we want to overcome them. Positive visualization, I’ll wager, just makes that a little easier, because it overwrites the negative expectation that might prompt a person to Avoid with something that inspires them to Approach, instead.
And… big surprise… life itself is one big uncertain and threatening situation. It’s full of the potential for pain and suffering. And either you accept this fact, and embrace life voluntarily (tragedy included), or you don’t, and you end up fearing and hating life for all the trouble it brings. And if you head down that path you might just end up suicidal. Or worse: thinking & acting like Pol Pot or the Columbine shooters, or like Cain in the Bible—ready to make the whole world pay for all the injustices it has dealt you. This is why all the major religions involve messages of peace and acceptance. This is why Islam is called “Islam.” The word literally means “submission,” and it has the same root as “salaam,” which means “peace.”
You see, when you submit to the eternal and necessary conditions of mortal existence (i.e. “God”)—that is, when you accept that you are a mortal, living in a world much larger and more eternal than yourself, and so therefore that your life—every life—will include suffering… then you begin to see life’s real beauty. You see beauty when life is great, but you see it when life is unpleasant, too (like sunlight shining through the rain); and your life feels worthwhile anyway. You can weather any storm.
Just remember that this kind of voluntary acceptance is a life-long process. You have to work at it and re-commit to it again and again, with every moment that you can; because it’s too easy to forget it when times are tough.
** According to Harvard Psychologist Shawn Achor (in his book The Happiness Advantage) if you can practice any new routine for 21 days; three weeks; it’s very likely to become a habit. So you can use this knowledge to train constructive habits that overwrite your bad ones.
*** If something truly catastrophic does happen, well, then it might be hard to have positive expectations for a while. But the trick is not to let yourself stay in that state for long. Everybody copes with a crisis differently, and it may take some longer than others to feel better, depending on the person and on the type of crisis. But once you start to feel a little better, do your best to open up again. It might feel strange or “unrealistic” to do that at first, but if you can just remember that it’s still possible to rebuild your life and to build an even better one than you had before, then you’ll be better prepared to actually do that when your feelings and the situation give you the opportunity. Also, try to remember you’re not alone—at the very least, there are other people out there who’ve probably been through something similar, or worse. Suffering is a fact of life, but it’s also what unites us as human beings.
So, to sum up:
1. If some upcoming situation worries you to the point of avoidance, procrastination, and dread; then you obviously have some negative expectation, even if you can’t quite articulate what it is.
2. When you think of the situation, actively visualize the situation going well. Your expectations don’t guarantee anything that might happen, but they do influence your mood, so you might as well try and imagine something good.
3. Walk in with your head held high. Rejoice in what goes well; deal with, then forget about, anything that does not.
Right. That’s me done rambling. Thanks for reading!