Several months ago, I shared a story with my online community that really touched a nerve. It had to do with what I learned about myself while waiting to have a repair done at my house. It's funny how, if you pay attention, important life lessons show up in the simplest ways. Here's what happened to me.
On a particularly hot spring day, I decided to try the air-conditioning system in our new home -- only to discover it didn't work. I contacted the company and learned it would take a few days for someone to come investigate the problem. No sooner did I hang up the phone than I began ruminating about what might be wrong. The unit was probably defective, I thought. Maybe a water line broke inside a wall and they'd have to tear out the plaster. Worse, they might have improperly installed the whole system when we built the house. Talk about a worst-case scenario.
Three days later, I watched the repairman pull a broken seal off an outside line; I was thrilled to hear the problem was minor. Then it hit me: Why had I been so pessimistic? Why hadn't the prospect of an easy outcome ever crossed my mind?
As I shared with my friends online, the experience revealed an inconsistency I hadn't noticed before. When facing big challenges in my life, the ones with the most transformative potential, I'm always inclined to expect positive results. But this bout with air-conditioning problems prompted me to start paying pay closer attention to how I handle the little challenges -- the projects, chores, inconveniences, and small setbacks we all face every day. In these cases, I came to realize, I often expect things to be difficult.
Of course, it's not always easy to step back and picture a simple solution. Like me, you've probably found yourself recasting a relatively straightforward task as a "huge problem." This kind of thinking crops up in countless ways. You might agonize for days over the thought of creating a family budget to cut spending and reduce debt, for instance. You imagine having to set up complicated Excel spreadsheets, hunting around for a year's worth of bills, or spending hours at your desk. When you finally sit down to get it done, however, you find it takes a short amount of focused time -- and you actually feel much better after doing it, knowing that you've now charted a course forward.
No corner of life is off-limits to a pessimistic mind-set. As an example, my colleague Bill, a professional speaker, used to become anxiety-ridden before new presentations, worrying about needing to do hours of research to find just the right words. "Invariably, though, the outline would flow out of me within minutes," Bill told me. "Once I realized that, I could finally let go of my false way of thinking." As he discovered, our thoughts create either suffering or salvation. By shedding the negative outlook, we set ourselves free.
Blue Skies Ahead
What's the cost of expecting things to be hard? It's higher than a night of lost sleep or an afternoon of stress and anxiety. Perhaps you dream of leaving your boring job to pursue your love of interior design yet erroneously believe it will take years of training just to get started. You may be robbing yourself of a vital opportunity. Likewise, if you stay in a loveless marriage for fear of a nightmare divorce, you may never come to experience the joy and intimacy of having a true connection with someone you love.
There's nothing wrong with considering the potential pitfalls of your current situation -- for a little while. It's smart to anticipate and plan for how you'll handle a given obstacle. But endlessly stewing over what might go wrong often proves more than unproductive. It can actually set you up for the very thing you fear the most.
Think of it this way: When you visualize a negative outcome, you approach things differently. You operate, ironically, in a way that supports the result you most want to avoid. Say it's time to ask your boss for a raise, and rather than expect a positive exchange, you focus on all the reasons why she won't come through with the money. Overwhelmed by this thought, you procrastinate setting up a meeting, neglect to do the necessary homework that would prove why you're deserving of more money, and show up in her office projecting a lack of confidence (thereby limiting your ability to ask directly for what you need). Had you imagined "easy" in preparing for your request, you may have communicated your needs in a more professional, self-assured way -- and netted a better result in the end.
When we learn to visualize or anticipate a simple solution to a problem or imagine that a task will go easier than planned, we give ourselves a better shot at having a positive experience (whether or not it turns out to be easy). It's as if our hopeful expectation opens our minds to the people, information, and tools we hadn't seen before. Not only that, but a good attitude serves us well should things get a little challenging. It's definitely worked for me. Becoming aware of my tendency to expect the worst was all I needed to cross over to easy street.
How about you? Are you ready to take the easy way out?
Turn That Frown...
Transform pessimistic thinking with these key steps.
1. Choose a situation that concerns you and create an intention statement that supports easy: "I will easily transform my cluttered home into a beautiful space to entertain loved ones," or "I enjoy putting money away each month toward a safe and secure retirement."
2. Focus on the positive. When your mind wanders back to the worst-case scenario, quietly repeat your intention until you feel centered and restored.
3. Take one step now that supports a happy outcome to the issue at hand. Note when things do go smoothly as you progress toward your goal.