You’re missing golden opportunities to reduce your anxiety

Something feels amiss, and it’s eating away at you. You try to reassure yourself that everything will be all right, but it’s not working. Other people tell you everything will be all right too, and it sounds tinny and disengenuous.

Why can’t you just convince yourself?

Because convincing yourself demands gullibility you don’t want. You want to be a realist, brave enough to be honest with yourself. If you define “be all right” so broadly that it includes dying a horrible, unnecessary, young death, it becomes meaningless. No, not everything is going to be all right.

Still, more things are going to be all right than you realize. Because worry is distracting and debilitating, it’s important that you figure out how to use “Everything is going to be all right” right.

Say you’re worried that you’re going to lose your job. You have three options:

Convince yourself that it’s all good—everything everywhere is always going to be all right, including losing your job. Doing this requires dismantling your BS detector entirely. Not a great option.

Define all right as keeping your job and not all right as losing it. Then be distractingly obsessed with losing it, which could become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Not a great option.

Think realistically about your best fall back position. Visualize losing your job and then meditate on how to make the best of that disappointing situation. If you finesse an OK loss, you’ll gain a realistic sense that in your situation everything will be all right—not as great as keeping your job but still OK. This is the best option. A realistic sense that you’ll be OK.

Option three is not always available to us, but it’s available far more than we notice. We get so tunnel vision about what’s immediately at risk that we shun consideration of acceptable alternatives.

In decision theory, figuring out how you’ll finesse Plan B is called “minimaxing,” which is minimizing your maximum loss, and it’s applicable to all sorts of sources of anxiety.

Fear that your partner will leave you? Think through what you’ll do if they go. If it’s not the end of the world for you, you’ll relax.

Paradoxically, by accepting the risk you’ll actually lower it, because people don’t want a partner who’s always anxious they’re going to leave.

Losing your cool in an escalating argument? Think through what you’ll do if you can’t convince your opponents. Will you still be able to hold to your opinion? If so, then what would it really cost you if you don’t convince them? Probably less than you think, in which case relax.

Paradoxically, by accepting the risk that you won’t convince them, you become a tougher, more credible, charismatic debater. Fear of losing smells like weakness. Looking desperate to convince them gives them all the power. By knowing you’ll be OK, you take back your power to determine how you feel.

We admire sports teams that fight hard when they’re down. They fight better when they’re calm than when they’re anxious. They have calmfidence.

It’s not going to work to face failure only after you’ve lost and then pretend that you’re OK with it. If you were anxious to win and then losing say, “Hey, I’m fine with that. I didn’t really care,” no one’s going to believe you. It will sound like sour grapes.

Minimaxing is central to negotiation strategy too. The best negotiators know their “BATNA,” which is their best alternative to a negotiated agreement, basically what you end up with if you can’t strike a deal. If you know that you have a good BATNA, you can negotiate hard. You can say, “Take it or leave it,” knowing that you’ll be fine if they leave. If, instead you have a bad BATNA or just haven’t thought yours through, you’ll come across as desperate, and they’ll eat you alive in the negotiation.

We don’t always have OK alternatives. As a realist, you want to be honest about that. But we have them more often than we notice. Sometimes it really isn’t the end of the world, and the better you get at figuring out that you have decent enough options, the more true resilience you’ll have.

Author’s Book

© Copyright 2015 Jeremy E. Sherman, Ph.D., All rights Reserved.
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Vital stats: Berkeley, 57, partnered, three children (M34, M28, F24), married once for 17 years. Educationally: Ph.D. in evolutionary theory, masters in public policy Vocationally: MBA professor of strategic foresight, business consultant and communications trainer, academic researcher. Historically: I've taught over 250k college-student/hours in psychology, sociology, rhetoric, philosophy, advertising, economics, history, English, cultural studies, marketing and strategy. I founded a non-profit environmental lobbying organization in DC, worked as a business consultant and public affairs director for large companies, ran a foundation, designed and implemented water projects in Guatemala. For seven years I lived on the world's largest hippie commune, and was an elected elder there at 24. Authority: None. I never refer to myself as an expert in anything, but rather a specialist in those questions that interest me (see below). I write with no authority. I read lots but cite rarely in my articles which should be read as opinion pieces, not declaration of scientifically proven fact. I will not pull rank on readers: My ideas are only worth considering only if they're based on good reasoning. I change my ideas over time. Caveat emptor. They say "don't believe everything you think. I'll go one further: I don't believe everything I write, in that for every argument I make, I aim to be able to express convincingly the counterargument. I try to live by the F. Scott Fitzgerald quote: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function." Self-expressively: I've written over 600 articles for Psychology Today, coined over 400 psychology neologisms. I write songs and limericks. I play bass and sing in jazz, Latin, funk, and Nigerian groups three nights a week. Intellectually, yet intimately, my middle-age spread spans several life-sized questions. * Most cosmically, how did mattering emerge from matter?, life from non-life? mind from chemistry? economics from physics? information from energy, questions I address as a member of a 16 year research project with UC Berkeley scientist Terrence Deacon. * More practically, though not unrelated, how do and how should we shop among interpretations, deciding what's significant and how to respond to what life deals us? * Also practically and related, what is a butthead other than someone we butt heads with? since in a free society we should define morals negatively--not what you should, but what you shouldn't do. We say "don't be a butthead," but define buttheads subjectively as people we butt heads with. I seek a more objective distinction between what's morally in and out of bounds. * How do and should we balance the ambigamist's tensions and what is the underlying structure of such tensions? For this I use the Serenity Prayer as a template, and think about levels of analysis (going meta). I've written five books, only one published but the rest out soon one way or another. Negotiate with yourself and win: Doubt management for people who can hear themselves think. Purpose: A natural history Doubt: A user's guide; a natural history Mind readers dictionary: Terms for reading between the lines with greater comprehension. Executive UFO: A field guide to unidentified flying objectives in the workplace.