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What If or What Is

I was reflecting at the weekend on a moment with Mum. We were in the kitchen. We knew she only had weeks to live, but I remember her looking out of the window and telling me that things seemed more beautiful than ever before. That she was seeing things she’d always appreciated, but perhaps taken for granted, in a new light. 

It seemed to me that at the very moment time was running out, Mum stopped worrying so much about the future and really began to appreciate the now.

Like Mum, I’ve suffered from nerves and anxiety. As I prepare to step outside of my comfort zone, my imagination shows me all the things that could go wrong. I’ll have sleepless nights where my mind plays out a myriad of future possibilities that are often fantastical and mostly never happen. When flying, part of me assumes the plane will crash and is busy formulating a plan, albeit an unlikely one, for survival. 

‘What If’ thinking can be constructive. For example, it can encourage creativity, generate ideas and help with planning and contingency. Let’s be honest, it helped us very quickly adapt our business to cope with the change ushered in by the pandemic.
But ‘What If’ thinking can also be destructive and debilitating. And is often irrational. When thinking about conversations we know we must have, we begin catastrophising. What if they say that? What if they react in this way? What if they refuse? Our mind takes us down a dark alley of negativity where every situation ends in conflict, anger and heartbreak. 

It’s important to remember that people will almost never react in the way your imagination has invented, and that catastrophising increases our stress and tiredness, reducing our ability to react rationally and objectively to other people.  

‘What If’ thinking can also mean agonising over things we can’t control. In these strange times, we might find ourselves worrying, what if Putin launches a nuclear weapon, what if interest rates continue to rise, what if our pension collapses, what if there’s no water next year, what if the polar ice caps melt?! But, unless our ‘What If’ thinking is going to result in action that will change the situation - for example, we have the ability change our mortgage deal or do something different with our pension funds – we might be wasting valuable energy and doing serious harm to our mental wellbeing. It’s important to be aware of our circle of influence and where we do have control. 

If we’re not careful, negative ‘What If’ thinking can become a habit; a cycle that’s hard to escape.
But, perhaps the most important thing to remember is spending time in ‘What If’ might mean missing out on ‘What IS’, because ‘What If’ thinking steals time from now. It prevents us living in and fully appreciating this very moment, which we’ll never have again.

If you sometimes find yourself struggling to get out of ‘What If’ thinking and into ‘What Is’ thinking, here are some ideas that might help:

1. Write down all the things occupying your mind, using a separate piece of paper or post-it for each. Then separate them into two piles – those that are within your circle influence, and those that aren’t. Put the latter pile through the shredder. Do something about the things you can change.

2. Take a moment to really notice what’s going on around you right now; the sounds, the smells, what you can see. Identify all those things that you love and value. 

3. Take a walk. Leave your phone behind but take a camera. A camera, in my experience, helps to focus your attention on what’s around you. Or take a notebook and record what you see in words and pictures.

4. Make a list of all the things in your life you feel grateful for, and why.

5. Recognise when your mind is taking you down a dark rabbit hole and take control. Change the story. Imagine all the truly ridiculous, funny things that could happen; make yourself laugh. Turn your tragic inner voice into a comedic one. 
Few of us will always avoid negative ‘What If’ thinking but learning to recognise and force a change that celebrates ‘What Is’ will help us develop resilience and good mental health. 

If you want to help others develop their resilience and mental strength, here are some links to useful material in Trainers’ Library:

Until next time...

October 4 2022Rod Webb

Rod Webb

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