The Pros and Cons of “What If”
Chances are, if you’re a human, you’ve started a sentence or two with, “What if…” followed by some form of thought. You’ve probably also noticed (even if you’ve never considered it) that “what if” is typically followed by one of two kinds of phrases: a positive, curious-like question, or one typically associated with dread, fear, or anxiety.
In both cases, “what if” is about possibilities – things that could go well, could be interesting, could inspire, could be exciting…or things that could go wrong, could cause pain, or could lead to disaster. And in both cases, we don’t know the answer. “What if” is just the starting point.
It’s a very powerful starter. “What if” can turn things around or send thoughts into a downward spiral. So it’s not something you should use without knowing its consequences.
When we are in potential danger, the ego tends to go into protector mode. “I’ll save you!” it says, and it courageously and dutifully sends you all kinds of worst-case scenario thoughts. After all, if you avoid the situation, you can’t get hurt, right? Problem solved!
Unfortunately, the brain can’t distinguish between fear caused by real life-threatening situations and those that are not so at all; all it knows is this: if you feel threatened, you must be in danger.
These kinds of “what if” questions are typically forthcoming without much thought at all. They bring to light anything and everything that could go wrong, in order to assess things that might cause harm to you in dangerous (or perceived to be dangerous) situations.
When you don’t know that this is what’s happening, you may tend to buy into these ideas. And anyone who has done that knows what happens: when you believe the potential disaster “what if” questions, or even if you just choose not to address them, the level of anxiety tends to skyrocket. You can also experience difficulty if you have insecurities about the potential issue, as these thoughts can prey on things you do not feel confident about already.
The good news is you can ward off these fear-driven “what if” questions by doing a little work ahead of time, so that the next time they appear, you’ll know what to do:
1. Before entering a situation that may cause fear, such as presenting your work, interviewing/auditioning, public speaking, etc., make a list of potential issues to troubleshoot so that you are as prepared as possible.
“What if I forget what I’m supposed to say?”
I’ll prepare a note card for my presentation with bullet points / I’ll make something up until I find my place / I’ll ask the pianist to give me a word
2. Be prepared to answer any “what if” questions with evidence.
“What if they hate me?”
Now how is that up to you? No one has ever said they hated you in the past, so you have no proof that’s ever happened. Besides, your job here is not to make people like you.
3. Go with the scenario and then ask for an action step.
“What if I fumble the whole presentation?”
Ok, let’s go with that. You fumble the whole presentation. Now what?
You may not be able to stop these kinds of “what if” thoughts from happening altogether, but you can take their power away and prevent them from filling you with anxiety.
Now let’s talk about the other kinds of “what if” statements: those that evoke a positive state of wonder.
“What if” statements that seek to discover can allow you to break through barriers created by limiting beliefs. By using these statements, many people have solved problems, invented things, created new methods, and opened themselves to greater things.
These “what if” questions explore possibilities you haven’t tried before. They can serve as catalysts to more ideas. There are usually two kinds of reactions to these – an excited, inspired feeling that evokes a continuation of thought along the same lines, or an almost-immediate denial of the possibility.
Positive “what if” questions can ask us to challenge our minds to see past what’s obvious. If you allow them, they can be responsible for mindset shifts, groundbreaking work, and expanding your potential.
If you have trouble allowing yourself to dream up new possibilities, or to hear such things when presented by someone else, try this: just be quiet. 🙂 Just because the idea is out there doesn’t mean you have to do it. But you also don’t need to dismiss it right away.
Just allow the “what if” to be. Even if it’s something that seems impossible, just let it hang there. Sometimes amazing things happen when you allow the mind to stay open. If you can’t resist a response, try something like, “Oh, that’s an interesting thought!”
If you’ve never considered the power you have with “what if,” now you know it should be taken seriously. These two little words have the potential to make or break many situations. And although you may not be able to determine when “what if” shows up, you definitely have the ability to choose what you do with it.
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