What Can You Learn From Your Fears?
I was talking to a friend of mine the other day, and she was unloading some of her problems on me. I guess that’s what friends are for. They weren’t really any life threatening problems, just the kind that build up, and if you keep them that way they can explode in an unhealthy way, so it helps to find someone to complain to. Which is pretty much what she was doing. Boyfriend problems, boss problems, parent problems. It seems like the entire universe was conspiring against this poor girl.
It got me thinking of a seminar I went to once. (One great way to allow people to vent without getting too emotionally involved is to let your mind drift to other things while they are venting.) This guy was talking about the value of negative thinking. Up until that point, I had always assumed that negative thinking was bad, and should be avoided at all costs. But this guy had a different take.
He said that everything we do naturally has a purpose. Some believe that purpose was put there by God, others (like myself) believe that purpose slowly evolved over time through natural selection, still others (like the guy teaching this seminar) believe in a metaphysical combination of the two. There is some life force that was present right at the big bang that inhabits all of us, and there is a purpose to all the crap we have to go through.
Anyway, he was explaining that negative thinking is a natural outcome of human’s special ability to think and plan for the future. Some biologists think this all started when humans started using tools to hunt animals. We had to kind of plan ahead when we threw a spear at our dinner as it was running away. The brain had to develop a way to accurately predict where the animal would be in a few seconds, and throw our spears accordingly.
This grew into our ability to plan for the future based on current events around. The way it works is the brain will sort through all of our possible choices, and then extrapolate all those choices out into the future, and create several likely scenarios and present them to our imagination. Based on what we imagine, we choose our behaviors accordingly. This happens pretty quickly and unconsciously. When we make a decision that has the potential for a negative outcome, we get nervous an anxious about the future. When we choose behavior that has an almost guaranteed positive outcome, then we get really excited about the future.
This guy at he seminar was saying that our negative thinking about the future can be a powerful warning sign to indicate some problems that may come up. Since we can never be really sure of anything, he was saying to give yourself the luxury of following your imagination for a while, and see what terrible things might happen, and plan accordingly to minimize any bad outcome.
He kept referring to the famous quote by Mark Twain, (which I’m paraphrasing here) “I’ve experienced many terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” Which means that rarely do our worst fears come true.
By allowing yourself to slip into negative thinking can be helpful if you consciously think and plan to avoid the negative outcome. It can be a bad thing if you allow your fears of the future to keep you from taking any action at all. That would be the often referred to condition of “paralysis by analysis.”
People that suffer from this need to plan everything in great detail, so they will be virtually guaranteed of a positive outcome. Of course, we all know that doesn’t always work that way. No matter how much you plan, stuff can happen to disrupt he best-laid plans.
The guy was saying that the people that are the most successful take a balanced approach. They respect their negative thinking enough to make good decisions, but they also respect the randomness of life to have a “Damn the Torpedoes, full speed ahead,” attitude when it comes to taking action.
People that rush in without too much thinking, with a “shoot first, aim later” attitude can be very successful, but they also have to be able to put up with a lot of setbacks and readjustments.
People that won’t even take the first baby step without being completely assured of safe and automatic success leave the starting blocks.
It’s that magical place in the middle where you can tune in just long enough to your negative thinking to put in a few safeguards, and then plow right on through life, confident you can handle and deal with anything that comes up along the way.
And by the time my friend stopped venting, she seemed to be feeling much better. She even had a couple of ideas on how to fix a few of her problems. She thanked me profusely for being such a good listener, and even paid for lunch. She seemed to be in a pretty good mood when we parted ways.