THE WHAT IF PARADE
Are you spinning out on “what ifs” right now?
- What if you get sick?
- What if everyone you love dies?
- What if the economy collapses and your business goes with it?
- What if you are unemployed for the rest of your life?
- What if the supply chain breaks down and the global apocalypse happens?
- What if you’d be a terrible survivalist because you don’t even know how to sew?!
I like to think of these thought spirals as a “What If Parade.”
It’s like a parade, but instead of a loop of music and cartoon floats, you get a loop of horrible catastrophes and “what ifs.”
It’s certainly colorful, though.
Brains are VERY creative when it comes to forecasting a million different horrible outcomes, aren’t they?
That’s because your brain evolved to forecast negative possibilities.
It actually thinks doing so is protecting you.
I know, it sounds crazy.
But it thinks by showing you everything that could go wrong with your life, it’s keeping you safe.
It’s putting you through a survival bootcamp of sorts, where your brain thinks you’ll be able to train for any eventuality before it happens. (It’s very wrong, more about that in a minute.)
This can be exacerbated or triggered by any shift in circumstances.
Better prepare by forecasting a million scary possibilities!
2020 presidential election?
Time to imagine the collapse of civilization as we know it!
And this wouldn’t be as much of a problem if your brain were ALSO good at telling the difference between imagination and reality.
Sadly, it literally can’t tell the difference.
This is why scary movies are so…well, scary. And it’s why simply imagining a dark future can put you in such a terrible mood.
Watching or imagining terrible “what ifs” playout puts your body in a state of anxiety and fear, as though you are experiencing those things right now.
And contrary to your brain’s theory, it doesn’t actually PREPARE you in any way. After all, when you’re ruminating you’re not making practical plans or managing your mind. It’s all just wasted energy.
So, how do you keep your What If Parade in check?
The first step is to remind yourself that the parade is an illusion. It isn’t really happening. In fact, nothing is happening to you right now.
Notice that your body is physically safe and that what you’re imagining is not around you.
Look around the room.
Focus on something tangible.
Feel your feet on the floor.
Connect with your body.
Once you’ve grounded yourself in your current reality, there are two tools that will help you turn your What If Parade around.
The first tool is called “let’s go there.”
When your brain shows you the parade of horribles, the tendency is to either want to look away or to get sucked into imagining the horribleness of it.
Either way, your brain isn’t using its prefrontal cortex. It isn’t problem solving or thinking critically.
Often, your brain will go to the worst case scenario and then invite you to watch it play out like a movie that is happening to you, over which you have no control.
But the main difference between the What If Parade and a movie is that in real life, you can intervene.
In real life, human beings have survived countless crises.
We are incredibly resilient.
Generations have gone to war and survived.
Generations have lived through plagues.
Generations have loved and lost and created art through it all.
So, I want you to go there.
Play it out in your brain.
“Ok brain,” you can say, “Let’s say this does happen. What would I do? How would I handle it?”
When we ask ourselves these questions, we tap into our prefrontal cortex.
Our brains will kick into gear and go into problem solving mode.
They’ll take stock of our resources. They’ll figure out what to do.
Even during a pandemic, we can make difficult decisions.
By thinking through what you would actually DO in a crisis of your brain’s imagining, your brain will shift from passive observer to active problem-solver.
Once you do that, you can see that you are not powerless.
One of the greatest sources of peace I have found when my brain wants to spin out is the thought “I trust myself to handle whatever happens when the time comes.”
I have handled difficult things before and will again.
As will you.
That’s just part of the human experience.
And yes, this includes the “ultimate” difficulties – the illness or death of loved ones, and even our own mortality.
These are inevitable parts of life.
We all have to handle them at some point, no matter what.
Our brains like to lie about this.
They act as though mortality only exists because of a specific crisis – be it a pandemic or a personal loss or a geopolitical situation.
Of course, that’s not true.
We will ALWAYS have to reckon with our own mortality and the mortality of our loved ones.
And how lucky we are for that to be true, because it means we are still alive.
When you take your fear to its inevitable conclusion, you will see that your ultimate fear is baked into the human condition and that you are equipped to survive loss. You are equipped to deal with whatever happens.
Once you’ve accepted that, you’re ready to turn your parade around completely.
You’re ready to shift your focus away from the What If Parade and toward the Parade of Possibilities.
I’m going to let you in on a little secret: Horrible outcomes aren’t the only outcomes that can happen. Horrible imaginings aren’t the only ones available to us.
The truth is, we don’t KNOW the future – so why spend so much time imagining only a negative version of it?
Challenge yourself to imagine a positive future instead.
Challenge your brain to entertain a Parade of Possibilities:
- What if you and your loved ones weather the coronavirus outbreak just fine?
- What if doctors discover a cure faster than we thought?
- What if society changes for the better after this is over?
I don’t mean we should deny that some people will suffer and die during this period.
That was true before this happened and it will be true long after, because suffering is a part of the human condition.
I simply want you to challenge your brain’s assertion that because a certain external circumstance changes, suddenly everything is different and terrible.
Because we know there is always suffering, illness, and death in the world.
Just as there is always beauty, joy, and birth in the world.
The world has always had a balance of both.
So instead of jumping to that which you fear, why not focus on what is possible?
What if you are closer to your friends and family after this?
What if you are able to show up in a different way because of this experience?
What if there is meaning or wisdom to be gained from going through this growth?
What if by focusing on these very questions, you are able to create meaning from this experience that proves them true?
We resist examining the impermanence of human life, and yet that very impermanence is what gives it meaning.
So don’t just watch the parade of horribles.
If your brain insists on playing it, go all the way there and empower your brain to handle anything your imagination throws your way.
Turn around and watch the parade of possibilities.
It’s a beautiful parade, and it’s always available to us.
We just have to remember to look.