What your “what if” thoughts say about you and how to end this damaging speculation
I hear it all the time: “I’ll be happy when this semester is over.” “I’ll be happy when we find our dream house.” “I’ll be happy when this cold is gone.” “I’ll be happy when I finish this dissertation.” “I’ll be happy when I get pregnant.” “I’ll be happy when the baby is here.” And what happens? The semester ends, the dream house is found, the cold is over, the healthy baby is born; there’s a period of happiness, elation even, and then regular life starts in again and the phrase starts all over: “I’ll be happy when…”
I’ve been working with a client who’s been finishing her Ph.D. dissertation. She’s been working on it for a long time and it’s been a nearly constant source of stress and anxiety. The dissertation has consumed her to the point of pushing many other important areas aside, including her marriage and kids. Many times during sessions she would say, “I’ll be so happy when this dissertation is over,” to which I would respond, “Yes, you will, and then the next source of anxiety will rise up and consume your mind.” She didn’t believe me. She was convinced that once she finished, she would be happy again. A few weeks ago she completed her work and experienced, as expected, a couple of weeks of pure joy. But in our session last week, she begrudgingly admitted that she was pulled under by anxiety again, this time focused on a minor health issue in her daughter.
“I keep thinking about my daughter’s health and scared that something is really wrong.”
“Let’s see what happens if you breathe beneath those thoughts. What feelings might be underneath?”
She closed her eyes and took a few minutes to breathe deeply. When she opened her eyes, they were filled with tears, and she whispered, “I don’t know how I would bear it if something happened to one of my kids. The risk feels too big.”
The risk is big; it’s enormous. There is nothing that renders us more vulnerable than opening our hearts to loving with abandon. As we talked further, my client realized that she had protected herself from this vulnerability by diving into her Ph.D. dissertation just months after her daughter’s birth. She also realized that she had done the same thing as a newlywed by launching a business. “I’ve kept myself busy to avoid feeling this vulnerability.”
“Yes, that’s what we all do.”
If you’re prone to anxiety, your mind will attach onto anything tangible as a way to avoid the incredibly painful and scary core feelings of vulnerability and touching into the risk of loss. When you’re obsessing on the future-based “what if” thoughts, you’re able to distract from the rawness of the moment and the almost unbearable awareness that by opening yourself to love you’re also opening yourself to the risk of loss and, thus, heartbreak. There is no greater risk, and people will go to great lengths to avoid this vulnerability either through staying single, staying busy, or becoming trapped in the anxious mind.
As I often see with my clients, transitions are particularly tumultuous, shape-shifting, and unsettling times when you’re sense of feeling out of control and groundless are amplified. The natural human tendency is to say, “I’ll be happy when… [this move is over; I’m settled into my new job; etc]” but that thought is a trap: there will always, always be another transition just around the next bend. And even if we’re not enduring a major life transition like getting married or having a baby, life itself is transition, a fundamentally unstable existence where the only permanency is change itself.
I’ll say it again: Life is uncertainty. Life is change. There are islands of calm and certainty scattered throughout the ocean, but for the anxious mind the challenge is to learn how to find serenity even during the storm. It’s not easy. Some would say it’s the greatest spiritual challenge you can undertake because it really boils down to learning how to embrace this moment, whatever it is. It’s about learning how train your mind to accept this moment even when things are hard.
In the end, it’s about recognizing, over and over and over again, where we have control and where we don’t. We can’t control the future; we can’t control the outcome of most events in our lives. But we can control how we choose to response to the fear-based what-if thoughts that descend on your mind like an avalanche and try to pull you away from this moment, right here, right now.