As most of you know, I recommend that the first question that you ask when you are faced with a challenge is, “What can go right?” It enables you to attack problems with a positive mindset, and it fights the tendency to get so focused upon possible negative outcomes that you stop thinking about solutions.
Asking what can go right doesn’t guarantee that things will go right, however, so it is only appropriate to objectively assess possible negative outcomes – once you establish that success is possible and you’ve assessed what can go right?.
When thinking about what can go wrong, it is important to avoid catastrophizing – the tendency to think about the worst possible outcome and then start believing that it is not only possible, but it is the most probable outcome. In other words, starting to believe that addressing the challenge has to have a bad ending.
In order to avoid catastrophic thinking, I teach my patients to ask three questions that come from the field of cognitive-behavior therapy:
- What’s the worst thing that can happen in this situation?
- What’s the likelihood of it happening?
- If it happens, will it be horrible or just too bad?
Many of life’s challenges won’t survive those three questions because we will recognize that they are not as scary as we may have initially thought.
If we are facing a situation that could have an objectively horrible outcome that is likely to happen, however, that is still not a time for catastrophizing. It is a time for action.
Make alternative plans. Cut your losses. Don’t do it. Negotiate. Think about ways of minimizing harm.
One of the unfortunate byproducts of catastrophizing is the tendency to become immobilized by fear. The alternative is to think about what can go right and only then think about what can go wrong? Assess the probabilities? And then take action. Proactivity is a good thing! Catastrophizing isn’t.