What If?

It’s a simple question asked in the moment as we try to anticipate the future: What if? The whole point is to imagine what might happen in the future.  It is asked as we consider the impact of current events or decisions.  The way we approach this question can lead to liberating, powerful decisions.  It can also lead to unfortunate, debilitating fear and inaction.


A positive perspective can make “what ifs” very potent questions.  What if I go back to school to become the photographer I’ve dreamed of becoming? “It will be fulfilling!”  What if I pursue my dream of dedicating two years to the Peace Corps?  “It will be a highlight of my life!”  What if I say yes to devoting one hour a day to reading those novels I couldn’t find time for?  “It will be cultivating!”


More commonly, though, the “what ifs” create a spiral of inaction. Should I take any chances with my career? “What if I lose my job?”  Should I take that exotic vacation I’ve been dreaming of? “What if the plane crashes? You know, there are terrorists.” Should I run a marathon? “What if I have a heart attack?”  Should I speak up for myself? “What if she leaves me?”  Should I take the entrance exam? “What if I fail?”  These questions originate from a place of anxiety and fear.  We fret over these questions knowing the generic answer will be “Stay safe. Nothing ventured, nothing lost.”  Some of us enter this kind of “what if” inertia spiral very readily, others less so.  It’s familiar to us all, though. The spiral predictably ends exactly where you now stand.


Of course no one can actually see the future so an individual’s answer to “what if?” will always come from one’s imagination. It is a made up scenario and this is a very important point to recognize.  You stand in the moment asking “what if?” and your imagination replies with an answer.  How does your imagination render this prediction of the future?


Last summer I rode my motorcycle from San Francisco to New York. It was an adventure that tested my riding skills and confidence. On some occasions I was buffeted by strong plains winds that tossed me around the road. That loss of control was unnerving. At night, after settling into a new motel I would turn on the Weather Channel to see what the next day had in store (this was a mistake). Toward the final leg of the trip the forecasts became ominous.  There were threats of tornados, hail and thunderstorms across the region and up through my only available route for a full week. I was not ready to wait out the weather and extend the trip by a week and not confidant that my riding skills were up to the challenges. The forecast did not change and in Memphis I decided to abandon the journey. I was tired, doubting myself and coming up with all kinds of reasons to put the bike in a U-Haul and drive home. What if I get caught in prolonged thunderstorms? What if it hails? What if the wind picks up again? Tornados!? What if I can’t find someone to watch the dog at home if I need more time? In fact I found a motel near a U-Haul shop so I could load up the bike and leave the next day. The plan was to quit. 


That evening I received some great advice from a friend, something I hadn’t considered.  “Why don’t you take a day off, relax in Memphis, and see how things look after that?”  It was a welcome idea.  That night I slept for eleven hours. Apparently I was much more fatigued than I realized.  After rethinking my decision I recognized that quitting would be an unacceptable outcome. I confronted my doubts, one by one, and resolved to finish the trip on the bike doing whatever it would require. Ironically (and instructively), the next few days were the most beautiful riding days of the journey. In West Virginia I passed a U-Haul truck of the kind I had reserved and was profoundly grateful not to be driving it.


So, what happened? I became mired in negative “what if” thinking. These thoughts were fueled by exaggerated weather headlines, fear, self-doubt and fatigue. I allowed my mind to run wild with these things and imagined a future comprised of potentially catastrophic outcomes. This projected future was, of course, one that was fabricated from negatively biased perspectives and selective attention to information that supported these biases. I imagined a scary future and it was all false.


Of course some people are predisposed to an anxious, fearful imagination. However, we seem to live in an era that exaggerates fear-provoking news. Despite less war, crime and illness than in past decades many of us feel that greater dangers now exist. There are myriad reasons for this, beyond the scope of this essay, but the important point to recognize is that our fears and anxieties tend to be fed by and attentive to distorted “facts” that amplify these fears and anxieties. When we then use our imagination to answer “what if” questions we are often drawn, like moth to flame, to imagine negative future outcomes. Questions like “What if terrorists attack?” “What if my worst fear comes true?” “What if I make a wrong decision?” or “What if poodle-size hail falls on me?” seem reasonable rather than absurd.


Is it possible to avoid “what if” inaction spirals?  The first thing to recognize is that it’s your imagination that must be tamed. You imagine the future and then base your behavior on that projected outcome. The image of a frightening future can only lead to inertia. Clearly the image of a more appealing future would provide positive motivation and the energy required to work toward that future.


It is also important to consider the role of self-fulfilling prophecy in “what if” scenario outcomes. A terrifying scenario can create a distracting, negative target that you may be pulled toward. If you envision appealing goals and stay focused on them you are more likely to achieve them.


What else can be done to avoid these “what if” spirals?

-       Take a break from your thoughts to disrupt the spiral.

-       Force yourself to imagine other futures and list them. Ask someone for feedback as well as other ideas.

-       Ask someone else how likely your worst-case scenario really is.

-       Is your worst-case scenario really so bad? Ask someone else.

-       Reflect on the past to gain some perspective on the future.

-       Do something that helps you relieve stress (art, exercise, sex, games, etc.)

-       Get some rest.


It’s important to recognize that negative “what iffing” can be countered by adjusting your perspective. Imagining a negative outcome is simply adopting one unproductive perspective from among many possible perspectives.  Actively choosing to embrace the likelihood of a rewarding outcome will not only lift your spirits but also increase the likelihood of good things actually happening in your future. (Other Thoughts and Essays)


All content copyright 2011-20 Michael D. Rabin, Ph.D., LLC