Is expecting the worst a helpful strategy?

woman catastrophising

Do you have a tendency to catastophise? You can overcome it. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Do you catastophise? Philippa Saunders says there are ways to overcome this.

Do you know someone inclined to always imagine the worst-case scenario?

Thoughts such as: ‘What if I make a complete fool of myself and they all laugh at me?’; ‘This relationship will likely never work out long term’; ‘I’ll probably come bottom in the class’; ‘I bet I’ll be a nervous wreck when delivering my presentation tomorrow.’

Why is it that some of us think this way? If we imagine the worst that can happen, then we won’t be surprised or disappointed if things do go wrong. Surely that’s helpful, right? Wrong. Let me explain why…

Émile Coué was studying the mind around the same time as Sigmund Freud and made a significant psychological discovery known as ‘Coués Law’. This states that ‘when the imagination and the will are in conflict, the imagination invariably gains the day’ (Brooks, 1922).

Put simply, this law relates to the times where you want to achieve a particular outcome, and you might even be putting a lot of effort into making that outcome happen, but you additionally fear that something negative might happen instead.

Say you have a presentation to deliver at work in front of a large group. Obviously, you want to remain calm and nail it, however your imagination may be running wild as you imagine yourself shaking, stumbling over words or forgetting parts of it. This isn’t what you want to happen, but the fact that you are imagining this negative scenario makes it very likely indeed that when it comes to the day of the presentation, you will be shaking like a leaf, stumbling and forgetting your words. The ‘anticipatory anxiety’ you created is very unhelpful indeed and underlines a strong connection between mind and body.

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When you know about Coué’s Law, it becomes clear that actually imagining or expecting the worst case scenario is in fact actually setting yourself up for a bad outcome. Your body is likely to respond very unhelpfully to these thoughts.

How do you overcome Coué’s law?

Imagine how you want a scenario to play out (as far as what you can influence). Imagine remaining calm and enjoying that flight; imagine feeling powerful and in control delivering that presentation; imagine yourself handling the test results well whatever the outcome…

This is called positive visualisation. Think about kids at school who are encouraged to rehearse over and over in the lead up to a school performance. Why do they do that? So that they will be calm on the night – expecting a positive performance. Needless to say, rehearsing beforehand makes it far more likely that a performance runs smoothly on the night.

Another reason a person may be in the habit of ‘catastrophising’ (imagining the worst-case scenario) relates to their ‘Desire for Control’. It is predictable that the more powerless, or out of control, a person feels, the more control they’ll likely desire. For example, if a person is experiencing a lot of stress or anxiety in life, it is likely that they will have an urge for more control, whether this be needing to know more details about an event, or obsessing over cleaning, exercise or food. Desire for control takes many forms. You may be familiar with the phrase ‘control freak’. This behaviour is very likely to be a result of a person feeling powerless to some extent.

How does desire for control relate to imagining the worst-case scenario? It reflects a person’s need to have ‘all bases covered’ just in case the worst does happen.

On the other hand, when a person has high coping skills and feels powerful, they are far more likely to step into the ‘grey’ of a situation (instead of seeing it in black and white terms) without the need to imagine every possible outcome. They are likely to be thinking much more helpfully and powerfully which, based on Coués law, is highly likely to deliver a much more positive outcome.

Philippa is a Thrive Programme Coach, based in Knutsford, Cheshire, who works face-to-face and remotely. Find her on Instagram @thrive.with.philippa and Facebook @ThrivewithPhilippa