We are experts at imagining all sorts of improbable scenarios, outcomes of decisions gone terribly wrong, undiagnosed diseases, or catastrophes of all shapes and colors. As Mark Twain said, “I am an old man and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened."
Sure, unpleasant things happen to us. Our bodies act as if the warranty has expired and begin to break down. Loved ones and friends die with unpleasant frequency. Financial plans and expectation are met with a cosmic laugh. The path forward suddenly seems to be leading us into a dark forest.
Buit, for most of the time, for most of our lives, and for most of our worries, when we ask the question, "What's the worst that could happen," it becomes obvious that the worst isn't really much of a likelihood.
Or, the "worst" isn't really all that bad. If the computer dies and I lose 5 years worth of emails, I won't miss 99% of them. If the car develops a fatal hiccup, I can afford another. It will knock my carefully crafted budget for a bit of a loop, but compared to something really serious, that doesn't begin to reach the level of "Worst."
The good news (see how I injected an optimistic tone into a discussion of pessimism?) is we are prone to assume bad outcomes. Studies show at up to 70% of our mental chatter is negative. Maybe when we were cave men and women, believing the saber tooth tiger had us on the menu kept us violent and alive. Whatever the reason, you are not unique in this regard.
Psychologists call it a cognitive distortion, a habitual and unconscious way of thinking that isn't based on reality. In this case, assuming the worst, is our distortion. While there might be an underlying personality cause, in many cases we just have to break the habit of assuming the worst outcome.
Another phase to describe this condition is catastrophizing: everything will end poorly, we will be blamed, guess I'll go eat worms.
For those of use in the retirement stage of life, "the worst that could happen" is not something we leave behind, like a paycheck. Health problem, relationship issues, financial meltdown...you name it and we can worry about it.
Writing in Psychology Today a few years ago, Meg Selig, offered three alternate thoughts to help us break this self-perpetuating cycle:
- It’s not happening now. Focus on that
- Whatever happens, I can cope. I am stronger than I think I am.
- I am causing my own suffering. Could I stop?
The worst that could happen may actually occur. We live in a very unpredictable world. But the odds are exceedingly low. To spend our mental energy on spinning a web of what ifs just doesn't pay off.