June 15, 2019

The Worst Thing That Could Happen





....rarely does.

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:

  1. It’s not happening now. Focus on that
  2. Whatever happens, I can cope. I am stronger than I think I am.
  3. 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.

34 comments:

  1. Bob, I had to chuckle a little because this is my husband's approach to most things. He calls himself cautious and analytical, while I call him a pessimist. I, on the other hand, jump in with both feet, giving little thought to consequences. Not good either. It is a good thing that God put us together, because mixed in the same pot we create cautious optimism with a pinch of blind faith. Sometimes we just need to ask ourselves, "what's the BEST that could happen."

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    1. Betty used to be almost a Pollyanna. With the onset of lots of physical problems, that is no longer the case. She isn't a pessimist, but does tend to let things in the morning paper or the political world upset her. In her defense, she is in pain most of the time and does a masterful job of getting on with life.

      I am more optimist, though I have been known to fall into a black mood over something going on in the world that upsets me. I do find that as I age, I am less optimistic than I once was. This post is one I needed to write and accept on a personal level.

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  2. I much prefer, particularly since we are well into this retirement phase, to take the optimistic approach. For example, we finally had a chance to break out the motorcycles and go for a ride yesterday. Lo and behold, Deb's would not start and I figured out her battery was dead. A few years back and I would have been kicking and swearing about our plans being derailed, but instead I told her stuff happens and we'll do something else. Plus, it gave me a chance to figure out who had the best battery for the best price, since the dealers charge as much as 50% more than retailers. We'll pick a new one up this morning and we'll be ready to ride sometime soon.

    I seem to be getting this way on a lot of things as we learn, through a lot of experiences, what exactly is important in life. BTW, none of my posts have been going through for the last couple of weeks, and I figured out that I cannot use the Brave browser with your site, since it blocks all ads, etc. Chrome still works fine, though, so for "Satisfying Retirement" Chrome it is.

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    1. I am glad you found the source of the browser issue. Firefox also seems to work well and is more security conscious than Chrome.

      If being totally honest, I would have reacted poorly to a dead battery right before a ride. Silly, isn't it. On the grand scale of life, that doesn't even rate as a bump.

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  3. I'm a true believer in optimism. I can't even stand to spend much time with the gloom and doom folks. If you're taking the pessimistic view, you will get what you ask for. Optimism is a gift, I think. Use it!
    b

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    1. Most of my posts are optimistic in tone or approach. Like you, I think spending time in negative spaces results in wasted time and effort. As I have noted above, I have to be alert to pessimism making appearances in my personal life.

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  4. I probably spend too much time being analytical about things but the pros-and-cons lists have served me well in the past. They help me move forward...like this week when I made my first payment on a continuing care facility. Growing old is not for sissies!

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    1. I think I save a lot of my "what if" thoughts for my dreams. While I don't have what I'd consider nightmares, I often find myself in difficult, repetitive, or frustrating situations while asleep. I guess that is a good place to store them!

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  5. Ha Ha! This post resonated! I am an optimist.. but I do know that the ka ka does hit the fan sometimes... Twice in our lives,I'd say the big "What is the worst that could happen" actually DID happen!! Back in 1981, we chose a chiropractic school in Texas for Ken to attend.We moved with our small child and rented an apartment, got part time jobs, it was hard.We were tired a lot. It was sooo HOT AND HUMID. And then, the school just wasn't a good one. Ken was miserable. Our cost of living in Texas was higher than we thought. We had left everything and everyone behind Back East. Looks like we had made a bad choice!! WHAT DO DO!!!!!?????? Well, as serendipity would have it, a small group of OTHER students felt the same way and got a "caravan" going to IOWA-- to transfer to the "mother school" -- PALMER... we were able to get in with that caravan and moved a SECOND TIME within a year.. during the Christmas break-- and a student family in Iowa took us in for a couple of weeks while we found a place to live, and got registered.Those 3 and a half years in Iowa are some of the VERY BEST MEMORIES OF MY LIFE. Worst thing happened and it turned out we got stronger from all the things we had to do to "fix it."

    Second "worst case"--we made a very quick and emotional decision in the first 6 months of retirement to move away from the Valley and up NORTH and live in the country!!WOO HOO!! As you know, the worst case was: WHAT IF WE HATE IT and have to move back? Well, I didn't settle in, and yes, we moved back. A very disruptive and rather expensive year but-- hey! We got our home in Gilbert back from the renter and now 4 years later all is well....

    Even when the "worst case scenario" happens, I have learned we grow from it, sometimes we learn all kinds of interesting lessons, and we find we have way more strength, resources, and ingenuity than we ever dreamed.

    At my age, I know there wil be more uncertainties, and life will continue to bring surprises and changes that may be disruptive..but I know from our past experiences, I will find the strength and assistance I need to navigate.

    I mean,what other choice is there??!!



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    1. Getting fired within 9 months of moving my very young family to Tucson was one of my "worst" times that turned into a blessing. It set me on the path of a very successful career that I may never have had the guts to try without being in a desperate situation.

      Meg Selig's second point in the post fits: we are stronger than we think. We can cope.

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    2. When I've heard people use the phrase, "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger," it has usually been said jokingly - or, at least, half-jokingly. But I firmly believe that it's true. There have been a number of experiences in my life that I've gotten through by sheer force of will, simply putting one step in front of another. Looking back, I know that each of those situations blessed me with wisdom and resiliency to handle the next.

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  6. “If a problem is fixable, if a situation is such that you can do something about it, then there is no need to worry. If it's not fixable, then there is no help in worrying. There is no benefit in worrying whatsoever.”
    - The Dalai Lama

    With all respect to the Dalai Lama I am a planner and as such I do plan for eventualities some of which are not going to be favourable though I do expect that the most likely course of events will more or less follow statistical averages. Past results may not predict future performance but what else do we have to go on? My investments could crash and burn. For my investment mix that is unlikely to happen, though it could. I could also live past 100 or I could die in the next few months. Who knows? Realistically either could happen.

    For me I don’t want to penny pinch in retirement so my money will last no matter what eventuality, we only have one life to live after all, but as one wag put it: “If you live every day as if it were your last, you’ll wake up with a lot of hangovers.”

    I suppose it’s about balance. The reality is there's only so much you can control and if you can't control something then there's not a whole lot of sense worrying about it. Avoid catastrophizing and plan with the best information available at the time adjusting as needed.

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    1. Balance is a good word. We plan the best we can, roll with the punches and adjust as needed. I was surprised to learn that 70% of our mental chatter is negative. That explains a lot but doesn't solve any problems on its own.

      Betty and I are "busting" our retirement budget next year with a trip to Eastern Canada and a 24 day cruise and exploration of the South Pacific and New Zealand. I don't really have a bucket list anymore (see May 22nd post) but these are on my "wanna" list. If not now, when? Could something bad happen between now and next year? Sure, but I can't live that way.

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    2. If not now then when? That's a question I often ask myself. Often we behave as if we'll live more or less as we are forever. Sadly that's not how it works.

      Enjoy your trips and take in Newfoundland on your eastern Canada trip if you have the chance. Newfoundland has a unique culture that is worth experiencing.

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  7. Good advice for all of us. Reminds me of the old adage: Pessimists are more accurate, but optimists are more successful.

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    1. Never heard that one before, but I like it. Happy Father's Day this weekend, Tom.

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  8. Hi Bob! Such important insights for us all--even us optimists. I actually call myself a "positive realist" because I don't deny that bad things happen--just that no matter what we do get to choose how we respond to those things. And selecting the more optimistic choice we can find usually results in moving forward...at least in my world. All good to remember as we get older. ~Kathy

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    1. How we respond and our attitude are the keys, aren't they. We can't change reality, but how we choose to react to it.

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  9. Just like your mother said.
    Don't waste your time in worry!

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  10. I worry too much, there, I've said it, and it really is time wasted. Jesus often said we need not worry and He said "who can add a single day to their life by worry", something to that effect and very true. Good post.

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    1. I have always loved Jesus's statement about the ineffectiveness of worry. Expecting the worst is a pointless reaction to what is or what may be. I need to keep reminding myself of that simple fact.

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  11. Long ago, I took a seminar from Brian Tracy, and one thing that has really stuck with me is how he framed worry. He suggested that 90% of things we worry about never happen. And he suggested that we write down the worst case scenario, resolve to accept it if it happens, and then think of what you can do to make sure it doesn't. I don't always follow through on every step, but I do remember that 90% of it will never happen. Over the years, he's been proven right repeatedly.

    This has been important to me as I am a worrier who comes by it honestly - nature or nurture, who knows? I come from a long line of worriers and it's a hard habit to break.

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    1. I'm there with you, Hope. Almost all of my worry is wasted energy and worry can't prevent what is going to happen anyway.

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  12. My mom had an excellent way of putting things in perspective. If my car needed expensive repairs, her response was, "cars aren't people". If I was worried about passing an exam, it was "exams aren't people".

    I agree that worry is often (always?) not productive. But if we're going to worry, we need to worry about people, everything else is just "stuff".

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    1. Keeping the ups and downs in our life in perspective is wise counsel. And, yes, most of what keeps us up at night is about "stuff."

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  13. I describe myself as an 'optimistic realist.' My general tendency is to look on the bright side and to find the silver linings. But when I find myself feeling anxious about something, I ask myself, "What's the worst thing that could happen?" Then I develop a plan to deal with that worst-case scenario, which allows me to stop worrying about it.
    Probably my worst set-back was being fired from an academic job I loved. (The polite euphemism in academia is being "denied tenure.") But because I had foreseen this possibility, I had spent my seven-year probation period saving enough to give me a one-year financial cushion while I looked for another job.

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    1. I like developing a plan to deal with a difficult problem. I am always one who defaults to planning for everything. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't, but life goes on.

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  14. "My life has been full of terrible misfortunes, most of which never happened." ~Mark Twain

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    1. I find it fascinating that Mark Twain wrote at least 18 books, yet the quote about worry is the one thing that many remember him for. Do you ever wonder if he worried about that?

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  15. I guess I am going to sound like Debbie Downer but during the great recession many of my absolute worst fears were realized in appallingly fast time and some horrible things happened that were beyond my nightmares. I will never recoverr financially from that fiasco, and probably not emotionally either because I am 59 and afraid to retire. The good news is that I did bounce back working in a far less toxic environment, but for five grand less per year. Many things in life we cannot control. Tuck and roll is my motto.

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    1. You are not alone. That probably doesn't make you feel much better, but there are always folks who get the wrong end of the stick in situations like the Great Recession. I am sorry for your situation. 10 years later and you are still here, tucking and rolling as required.

      Thanks for sharing.

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  16. I am a person to whom the worst thing did happen. It was terrible, it affected many people, and it continues to have repercussions years later. And yet, the worst thing almost never does happen, or if it does, it’s not that bad. So, despite my experience, I live my life refusing to spend much time worrying about possible bad things, especially if there’s not much I can do about them. The exception? Global warming. Lately, I have spent a lot of time thinking about it, and taking steps to reduce my own carbon footprint. The impact of unrestrained global warming is massive (the possible end of human civilization; extinction of a huge number of plant and animal species), and although it’s too late to prevent warming, there’s still time to reduce the amount of warming and its impact. But only if we all work together, now.

    Jude

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    1. I will never understand the blind refusal to accept what is smack in front of us. Saying climate change is a hoax or myth is about as logical as claiming the earth is flat just because we can't see over the horizon from our backyard.

      Like you (and hopefully many others) I look for ways to do what I can. But, I still want to scream when someone denies reality. We are soiling our world for eternity and dooming future generations to a drastically altered world.

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