Why Do We Always Expect the Worst? (and How to Stop Doing That!)

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“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of Hell, a hell of Heaven.”
—John Milton

Have you ever noticed that people tend to expect things to go badly? Often, without any conscious prompting, our minds automatically jump to and fixate on the worst possible scenarios. Consider the following examples and see if either of them sound familiar:

It’s 2 p.m., and your boss still hasn’t responded to the report you sent him this morning. As you check your email obsessively, you conclude that you haven’t received any feedback because the report is terrible and your boss can’t use it. (What really happened: Your boss’s noon call ran unexpectedly long and he hasn’t had a chance to finish reading the report — but he’s pleased so far!)

Your spouse has seemed distant the past few days, is being secretive, and is evading your questions. You’re consumed by the thought that he is involved with someone else and is thinking of leaving you. (What really happened: Your fifteenth anniversary is only a month away, and your spouse is trying to plan a surprise getaway without alerting you.)

We put ourselves through so much stress, anxiety, and mental anguish because we dwell on negative possibilities that aren’t actually happening! It’s a case of an overactive imagination being used for ill, not good. We would save ourselves a lot of suffering if we could stop our minds from dwelling on the most horrible “what ifs” we can come up with.

In my book, Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and Finally Let the Sunshine In, I admit that I used to be a master of dwelling on what could go wrong, how I might screw up, and how circumstances would conspire against me. And I paid a high price: a complete lack of mental peace, an inability to enjoy the present moment, high levels of stress and anxiety, difficulty experiencing quality rest, and more. Constantly expecting the worst can also take a toll on your relationships, your ability to trust and collaborate with others, and even your physical health.

Positive thinking is definitely the better, happier, and healthier path. Here, I share twelve strategies to help you conquer the suspicion, fear, and worries that may be driving you to expect the worst:

Acknowledge how busy people are.

When you don’t see results or receive a response from someone else in (what you think should be) a timely manner, it’s easy to get upset and jump to the worst possible conclusion. He doesn’t want to work with me. She isn’t interested in going out on another date. I didn’t get the job. And so on and so forth. But wait a second. Maybe the current radio silence doesn’t mean “no” — it might simply mean that the other person is busy.

The next time you’re waiting on a response and find yourself worrying, think through your own schedule and remind yourself how busy you often are. In this day and age, almost everybody is overscheduled and overstressed. Maybe the other person hasn’t had time to decide, your suggestion dropped off their immediate radar, or they haven’t read your email yet. No news doesn’t necessarily mean bad news — it just may mean the other person has a lot to do!

Stay busy yourself.

You can’t always control how long you have to wait on an outcome, or even what that outcome is. But you can control how you wait. You can torture yourself by dwelling on negative possibilities…or you can distract yourself by staying focused on and engaged in other things.

Take a dose of muscle medicine … or meditate!

Have you ever heard of “a runner’s high”? It’s a real feeling — and it can help you to stop expecting the worst. That’s because exercise releases endorphins, the body’s natural feel-good chemicals. Endorphins also decrease the amount of stress hormones — like cortisol — in your body. In fact, various studies have shown that exercise can be just as effective as taking prescription antidepressant medications … without the potential side effects. In other words, pumping iron or going on a run can literally melt away some of your apprehension.

I also recommend meditating when you’re fixated on a negative possibility. You might be surprised to learn that meditation can actually spark positive changes in your brain’s biochemistry. I can tell you from recent personal experience that meditation can help you deal more effectively with stress, lower your blood pressure, help you to feel content, and make you more mindful in the present moment … all of which are helpful tools when it comes to not worrying so much about the future.

Take steps toward a solution.

When you find yourself expecting a particular negative event (however likely or unlikely it might be), ask yourself if there is anything you can do to prepare for or even prevent it. In many cases, you’ll be able to take concrete steps toward a solution. Not only will you be keeping yourself busy, you’ll also be moving from helplessness to empowerment.

Phone a friend.

This “lifeline” can really help! The next time you catch yourself ruminating on just how bad things are going to get, pick up the phone and call someone you trust: your spouse or a friend, for example. Specifically, ask this person to help you think of several alternative outcomes (which, by definition, can’t be as bad as the worst-case scenario you were envisioning). A more neutral third party will have more perspective and will probably find it much easier to come up with not-as-bad, and even good, alternatives to help you stop thinking in extremes.

Retrain yourself to look for the positive.

Numerous positive thinking masters and even scientists agree: The things you think about and center your attention on shape the way you experience life. In other words, if your focus is on all of the horrible, negative, crippling things that might happen to you in the future, you’ll be calling more of them into your life. How? You’re engaging in self-sabotage. Your fears will hold you back, and your low self-esteem will prevent you from developing yourself and taking risks. At the very least, you’ll be so fixated on the worst possibilities that you might miss positive opportunities that are right under your nose.

Trust the master plan.

No, the universe is not out to get you. In fact, things usually have a way of working out. Often, though, it’s impossible to see the “master plan” until you’re viewing it through the lens of hindsight. The next time you find yourself focusing on a future fear, stop and remind yourself that you’re not omniscient. You don’t know for sure how a dreaded event will ultimately impact your life. For instance, unbeknownst to you, maybe the job you wanted but didn’t get would have required you to travel away from your family frequently. Or maybe the pay cut that has you so worried will force your family to cut out extraneous luxuries and activities, ultimately bringing you all closer together.

Stop being so unkind to yourself.

Beating yourself up, dwelling on how inept you think you are, and engaging in negative self-talk are all unhealthy behaviors in general. What’s more, they encourage you to view the future through a worst-case-scenario lens. For example, if you don’t get the promotion you had hoped for, you might think to yourself, I’m so stupid and incapable. I’m never going to move up in this company because I don’t deserve to. Nothing ever works out well for me. Then, you’ll probably go on to list all of your past failures in order to prove your own point.

Don’t generalize your failures, and don’t let your disappointment bleed into the future. Instead, make a point of celebrating your successes and reminding yourself of all the things you do well.

Try giving others the benefit of the doubt.

Do you find yourself assuming the worst about other people when it comes to their attitudes and actions, especially toward you? Unless you actually work for the Psychic Friends Network, remind yourself that you aren’t a mind reader the next time you find yourself assuming the worst about someone else’s thoughts or motivations. Instead, have a conversation with the person in question. If that isn’t possible, put yourself in his or her shoes and list reasons why you might behave in a similar way.

Live in the moment …

Seriously, take time to smell the roses! While it might be cliché, this old adage is fundamentally solid advice. To put it simply, when you’re engaged in the here and now, you’re focused on a reality that you can control, and you’re in a position to notice and appreciate all of the blessings around you. But if you’re fretting about what might come to pass, you don’t have enough bandwidth left to enjoy other aspects of your life. You’re exacerbating your anxiety and unhappiness by choosing to dwell on things you can’t change or control.

… but take a mental trip to the future when you find yourself dreading the worst.

When we’re expecting the worst, we tend to wear mental blinders. All we can see is the thing we’re dreading. As far as we’re concerned, the world ends with that event or outcome. But … does it really? Take a step back and look again. The truth is, even when things don’t go our way, life goes on. That’s why it’s so helpful to take a mental trip to the future when you’re dreading the worst.

Write it out.

Our anxieties can often seem bigger and scarier the longer we allow them to float around in our heads. The remedy? Sit down and write out the things that you are afraid of. As you do, consider each one. Where does this worry come from? Is it internal or is it from an outside source? Is it likely to happen? How will it impact me if it does?

Things really do have a way of working out. It can be hard to accept that truth and choose to let go of your worrying, especially if it’s a long-standing habit. But I promise, when you learn to manage your expectations, take the focus off your fears, and be productive in the present moment, your life will be so much healthier and happier.

(Editor’s note: If you enjoyed this article, please support us with a print or digital subscription!)

About the Author:
Todd Patkin, author of Finding Happiness: One Man’s Quest to Beat Depression and Anxiety and Finally Let the Sunshine In and Twelve Weeks to Finding Happiness: Boot Camp for Building Happier People, grew up in Needham, Massachusetts. After graduating from Tufts University, Todd joined the family business and spent the next eighteen years helping to grow it to new heights. After it was purchased by Advance Auto Parts in 2005, he was free to focus on his main passions: philanthropy and giving back to the community, spending time with family and friends, and helping more people learn how to be happy. Todd lives with his wonderful wife, Yadira, their amazing son, Josh, and two great dogs, Tucker and Hunter.

2 Comments

  1. Thank you so much. A wonderful article that encapsulated my anxieties and offered solutions eminently sensible and I hope I master it and not stop these thoughts drag me down any more

  2. Hi Todd I am culprit. I really want the book “finding happiness ” so that I can be out of the mental prison I put myself. Thank you so much for the tips. Are worth reading hey. Suffered exiety and depression for the long time I learnt from your tips that I have been living a painful life all these years.

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