”First ask yourself: What is the worst that can happen? Then prepare to accept it. Then proceed to improve on the worst.”- Dale Carnegie
What separates the human animal from the rest of the animal world is our unique ability to plan ahead, enabling us to foresee obstacles that could arise. This ability has protected our species, allowing us to survive and thrive virtually anywhere and everywhere on the planet. Much has been written in the last 100 years on the power of positive thinking and positive visualization. Undoubtedly, there is tremendous benefits from positive thinking, but it’s not the panacea for all man’s problems and it has become one of the most misused of personal development tools. (See also http://mindbodycoach.org/secret/ ) Our ability to foresee negative possibilities and potential outcomes is hardwired into us as humans, serving us well for over 5 million years. Maybe there is a way to more effectively use this capability to improve our quality of life and increase our capacity for happiness.
Any thoughtful person will occasionally consider the potential negative outcomes of almost any action or behavior. The logical and obvious reason for this is to prevent these negative outcomes from occurring. For example, you have your car inspected periodically, in part because of the “what if something is not safe” logic. You may check your car door upon parking because of “what if somebody tries to steal it” logic. You watch your diet, exercise regularly, and see your primary care physician for annual checkups because “what if there’s something wrong with me” logic. These thought processes, although negative, are part of the logic system of living safely in the 21st century, a way that humans continue to use this hardwired skill in an age where sabertooth tigers do not exist, weather can be predicted accurately down to a period of a few hours, and many parts of the world suffer from health problems because of an over abundance of food. Despite these quality problems and creature comforts many of us still struggle with “what if” thinking and the negative visualization of dreadful and dire things that could go wrong.
Albert Ellis was an American psychologist and one of the founding fathers of cognitive behavioral therapies. In 1955 he developed a cognitive therapy which he called Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy which was largely based on the human mind’s capacity for rational thinking, Ellis’s own life experiences, and his interest in the ancient philosophy of Stoicism. Ellis used a Socratic method with his clients to good effect, asking them to question and consider all the possible outcomes of their thought processes and behaviors. Very often the question, “What’s the worst that can happen?” provided the necessary therapeutic grist for the mill to create positive change and improve a client’s potential for happiness.
This question leads one to automatically engage in a strategy that Ellis referred to as negative visualization, where a person briefly indulges themselves in a frightening fantasy of just how bad a situation or event might be. The premise of Ellis’s strategy is that the things that we worry about most virtually never happened, at least not to the degree and severity that we forecasted. And, if they do, we will find some way to survive. Some examples were provided in his book, How to Make Yourself Happy and Remarkably Less Disturbable. In it he discussed people’s fear of terminal illness, job losses, death of loved ones, and a wide variety of exceptionally bad human adversities that he had worked with in his therapeutic practice. In each case he would ask his clients “What’s the worst that could happen?,” and he would artfully explore just how the client could survive the imagined disaster. Ellis wrote, “You can accept the reality that we have no control over what we call “fate” and over the many accidents that may happen. If you frantically think that you have to control all the dangerous events, you greatly limit your freedom and your life. Thus, if you avoid “dangerous” airplane flights, you still may be killed in a car crash and limit how far you can travel. If you “safely” stay in your apartment, you still may get killed in a fire. No matter how you restrict yourself, you still may fall victim to some germ or other hazard. Tough! But you do not fully control your destiny.” By accepting the uncertainties of life, a person is able to let go of the futility of trying to control, in advance, that which is uncontrollable.
Negative visualization illustrates that we spend a disproportionate amount of our lives worrying about things that may never happen and, even if they do, they are things we cannot control anyway. Rather than being a depressing and negative exercise, negative visualization is meant to increase our appreciation of what we have, now, in the present moment. For example, as parents many of us take for granted time spent with our children. Work, golf, our own leisure activities, and “I’m too busy,” often keep us from spending time with our children in the day to day routine of their development. A negative visualization activity would be to imagine suddenly not having your child due to some tragic circumstance. The reality is that you would probably survive this loss, but your life would be filled with grief and regret at not having devoted more time and attention to your child. If visualizing your child’s death is too overwhelming, keep in mind that the 18 to 21 years of their childhood will be over in the blink of an eye. This activity, although initially pretty depressing, allows you to fully appreciate the gift that you have now, right in front of you, of sharing your child’s formative years. Negative visualization allows you to appreciate what you have.
It’s easy to get caught up in the negative aspects of these day-to-day routine events of your life. Maybe your job is difficult and tedious. Imagine for a moment what it would be like if you suddenly lost your job. What would that feel like? What would you do? Imagine your husband, wife, or partner who you’ve been annoyed with lately, suddenly decided it’s over and walked out. What would that feel like? What regrets might you have? What can you focus on or work on right now to improve that relationship? Maybe you haven’t been taking care of your physical health, haven’t been exercising, and have been eating poorly. What would it be like for you if suddenly you couldn’t walk, exercise, or even move? That brief, yet depressing, thought may just be enough to allow you to appreciate the gift of your current health and prevent you from squandering what you have right now.
Negative visualization is certainly not for the faint of heart. It is a bold and brave strategy that takes advantage of the human tendency to, as Albert Ellis said “awfulize.” Negative visualization enables us to appreciate the present through the hindsight of the future. By fully appreciating the simple, routine, and mundane of life we can become more joyful in the present moment and avoid future regrets. Tapping into our natural tendency to ask “what if” and taking a fearless look at the answer to that question can be scary. The realization, however, that the awful event hasn’t taken place, at least not yet, can allow us to be more fully appreciative, grateful, and happy.
Life isn’t necessarily about being happy with the big things. It’s more about appreciating the everyday simplicity of the things that we could easily take for granted.
“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?.”- Joni Mitchell
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