What's the Worst That Can Happen?
By Leo Gura - June 23, 2013 | 1 Comments
Learn how to release your greatest fears and make sound decisions by asking yourself a few simple questions.
“What’s the worst that can happen?”
“And, why is so that bad?”
I love asking my clients this question. This simple question, used properly, has the power to clarify and uproot the most crippling of fears. Today I want to take a closer look at how fear works and how it influences your decisions. I love this topic because without conquering your fears you will never be able to reach your full potential.
Let’s start with a personal example:
Viva Las Vegas
In November 2012 I made a big decision. I decided to relocate from Dallas to Las Vegas to fully immerse myself in pick-up. I’d just completed a 30-day challenge in Vegas that September — I lived in Vegas for 1 month in a motel and went clubbing for 30 days straight.
I’m supposed to have a Ph.D. on the subject of women. But the truth is I’ve flunked more often than not. I’m very fond of women; I admire them. But, like all men, I don’t understand them.
Side note: For those unfamiliar, pick-up is the art and science of creating fast attraction with girls in nightclubs and bars. Yes, it’s real. No, it’s only mildly creepy. Yes, it’s incredibly worth-while.
Soon after I got back to Dallas, where I’d lived for 4 years, I realized that I needed to move to Vegas if I wanted to seriously pursue pick-up. And so I made the decision to move. It was one of the toughest decisions of my life.
Although deep-down I was excited about the move, I was also plagued with fear and doubt. What if I won’t like Vegas? What if screw my life up? What if I get distracted there?
The decision seemed so heavy, and black and white. In my mind I painted a picture of things either going amazing well, or horribly bad. In truth, I had a lot riding on this decision:
- Making my business work in Vegas
- Moving away from my friends and family
- Leaving my girlfriend
- Finding a balance between business and pick-up
- Cost of moving
- Hassle of moving
- Doing something so radical
I drew up a long list of pros and cons for moving versus staying, but even after all the logical analysis, I was still left with this palpable fear that I might be making a big mistake. And time was running out. I had to make a decision by the end of November because of my leasing arrangements.
Fortunately at this point I has access to a life coach as part of my training program. We talked about all the pros and cons, and reasons why I wanted to move, but what helped me the most was this one simple question, “What’s the worst that can happen? And, why is that bad?”
It went something like this:
Coach: “So what’s the worst that can happen if you move to Vegas?”
Me: “I hate it so much that I’m miserable living there, like Boston.”
Coach: “And why is that bad?”
Me: “I hated living in Boston.”
Coach: “And why was that bad?”
Me: “I didn’t have any friends, I was far from family, I didn’t like the city, I didn’t like the weather.”
Coach: “And what’s so bad about living in a place you don’t like?”
Me: “Well… I feel lonely, I feel uncomfortable and insecure, I have to look for a way to move out.”
Coach: “And what’s bad about that?”
Me: “I don’t want to move again. I’m tired of moving. I’m frustrated because I’m wasting my time. I move to one part of the country, spend a lot of money, and then have to move back. It’s wasteful and inefficient.”
Coach: “And what’s bad about that?”
Me: “I should be putting that time and money towards advancing my career. I don’t want to take a step backwards.”
Coach: “What’s bad about that?”
Me: “If I keep taking steps backwards I’m not going to be successful.”
Coach: “And why is that bad?”
Me: “Life is short. My life will be over soon and I’ll have accomplished nothing.”
Coach: “And why is that bad?”
Me: “I want my life to mean something. I want to be proud of my life.”
Coach: “So it sounds like accomplishing something big in your life is very important to you — it will make you feel proud and significant. And you’re afraid that if you move to Vegas, you might lose that opportunity. You’re wagering your life’s significance on this move. No wonder you’re second-guessing yourself.”
Me: “Well, yeah… but actually… moving to Vegas IS the opportunity. The comfortable choice is to stay in Dallas. The bold choice — the choice for growth — is move to Vegas and see what happens. I decided to move to Vegas because I am seizing my opportunity.”
Coach: “So what’s the worst that will happen if you move to Vegas?”
Me: “Well… I move there and I hate it. I lose interest in pick-up and Vegas turns out to be a bad place to start my business.”
Coach: “Okay. Let’s say that happened. What would you do then?”
Me: Well… I could move. I guess if I hate Vegas I would move back to Dallas. I would have to stay in Vegas for at least a year though — that’s the apartment lease term.”
“I’ll pay about $4,000 to move to Vegas. Cost of living in Vegas will be about the same as Dallas, so that’s not an issue. It will cost another $2,000 to move back to Dallas. So worst-case scenario, I’m out $6,000 and back where I am now. I’m basically paying $6,000 to live in Las Vegas for 1 year. You know what? That actually doesn’t sound so bad. Even if I realize that I don’t want to live in Vegas, it will still be worth it to have lived there for 1 year. $6,000 for that kind of life experience sounds like a bargain!”
Coach: “Doesn’t sound like you have as much to lose as you thought you did.”
Me: “Guess not. And the upside is enormous.”
The lesson here is that it pays to explore the root of your fears. Your mind is really good at catastrophizing — making you feel fear despite that fact that the risk of something bad happening is minimal. Once you dig into the issue, identify the worst-case scenario, and stare your true fear in the face, you’re able to breathe. You cannot act effectively in the grips of fear.
So what was my true fear about Vegas? Hint: It wasn’t about moving. It was about being insignificant. I was deathly afraid to waste resources (time and money) because that would mean my life would be insignificant.
As soon as I saw what my fear was really about, I also saw the solution: Vegas is actually an opportunity! I’m buying opportunity for $6,000. Once I saw it in this light, the crippling fear started to lift. $6,000 was a bargain for this opportunity. The life experience I would get — just the experience of struggling through this decision to move — was worth $6,000 because I value personal growth.
How to Discover Your True Fears and Motivation
If you’re facing a major decision, or you’ve already made a big decision that now has you second-guessing yourself, my advice is to sit down and drill yourself with the following questions:
- What’s the worst that will happen?
- Why is that bad?
- What will I do when the worst happens?
The trick is to go do deep on this. You can’t just ask once. Especially with #2. You have to keep digging until you hit rock-bottom. If you do this deep enough you will have an “Ah-ha!” moment where you discover your deepest underlying fears in life, which probably manifest in many different ways every day. You will also discover your deepest source of motivation. If you haven’t done this kind of work before, you’ll learn a lot about yourself.
In the Vegas example I discovered that my deepest fear is wasting my life, and my deepest motivation is living a meaningful, accomplished life — two sides of the same coin. This is a common root fear. A root fear is a generic, abstract, commonly-held fear that pervades your entire life. Identifying roots fears is powerful because can neatly explain many behavior patterns in your life. Here are some more common root fears:
- Fear that you are unlovable
- Fear that you are not good enough or smart enough
- Fear of death
- Fear of going broke
- Fear of letting your family down
- Fear of rejection
- Fear of failure
- Fear of losing control
- Fear of reverting to your old self
- Fear of embarrassment
- Fear of being wrong
- Fear of being insignificant
My root fear — of being insignificant — manifests itself in various ways throughout my whole life. Specifically in this case, I was afraid of wasting precious resources (time and money). But with introspection and the help of my coach I realized that I wasn’t wasting resources at all, I was making a calculated investment. As soon as I made this re-frame I was at peace.
Ignoring Fear vs Releasing Fear
We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face… we must do that which we think we cannot.
All of us have deep-seated fears that we don’t want to face. We also have minor fears that seem like one thing on the surface but turn out to be something else underneath.
The best way to neutralize crippling fear is to simply take action. The second best way is to methodically examine it (not to be mistaken with ruminating on it).
Examination often forces you to face your fears and see that they are largely figments of your imagination. Sometimes just seeing the fear for what it is — even if it’s very real — will give you peace. You will simply release the feeling after you see it in all it’s entirety.
When you face your fear, one of several things will happen:
- You will resist and bury your head in the sand. (fail)
- You’ll see that you’ve exaggerated the fear in your mind.
- You’ll see that the worst-case scenario is wildly improbable. And even then, you have options.
- You’ll see that the fear is actually about something else, something deeper.
- You’ll see that the fear, even if warranted, is dis-empowering and poisoning your life.
#2, #3, #4, and #5 all lead to a partial or sometimes total release of the fear, giving you a sense of ease and allowing you to act from a position of clarity. #1 will prolong suffering and could lead to all sorts of real-world and psychological problems. It would be fairly accurate to say that all neurotic behavior comes about when you try to sweep fear under the rug, running away or avoiding your problems. Parts of you are incredibility adept shirking responsibility. It’s your job to stay vigilant.
Not Digging Deep Enough
The most common mistake you can make when exploring your fears is not digging deep enough. You want to go through at least 5 iterations on the “And, why is that bad?” question. Make sure you’re specific about what upsets you the most about the situation. Don’t give generic answers like, “Well, if that happens it will suck.” How will it suck? Why will it suck? “It will suck because I will feel bad.” Feel bad? No! What are you actually going to feel? Name emotions (fear, anger, lust, sadness, lonliness, etc). And always be sure to ask, What’s bad about feeling that?
Make sure you dig deep.
Sometimes this is easier said than done. It’s especially tough in serious situations like a death in the family, a cancer diagnosis, losing your life savings in the stock market, etc. Tough situations definitely make it harder to exert conscious control, but nevertheless the same fear-busting strategy applies — you’ll just need to summon more courage to use it.
The whole secret of existence is to have no fear. Never fear what will become of you, depend on no one. Only the moment you reject all help are you freed.
Let me be clear. I’m not hear to dismiss are your fears a nonsense. Well, actually I kind of am, but I can’t dispute that worst-case scenarios never come true. You can lose your kid, you can lose a parent, you can end up broke, your spouse can get cancer, you can be abandoned by your partner, or you can die tomorrow.
This is going to sound harsh, but that’s life! You don’t choose these things. You can only control how you think about them. Comfort yourself only as much as you need to. Then choose to think in an empowering way. If you make yourself a victim and choose to think in a dis-empowering way, you will have results you don’t want.
Are you worried about losing your kid? So worried that you might be over-protective? So worried that you’re actually doing more harm than good? The issue is not what you think it is. It’s not about how to protect your kid. It’s about why YOU feel the need to be so protective. Are you really doing it for your kid’s benefit or for yours? Be honest!
What if you just accepted fact that your kid could die? It’s the truth isn’t it? Stop constructing fairy-tales. You will die. Your kids will die. Everything you cherish will soon be incinerated in a ball of smoldering fire when the sun expands to vaporize the Earth a few billion years from now.
For more on how to deal with bleak topics like death, see my post on Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations: What a Roman Emperor Can Teach You About Happiness.
My heart is afraid it will have to suffer. Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself.
The worst case scenario is always death or massive pain. Death isn’t so bad. The sooner you can left go of this fear, the sooner you can move on to living a content life. Massive pain… that’s harder. But still, for most every-day situations, the fear of massive pain is greatly over-exaggerated. The greatest pain often comes when you try to avoid facing your fear.
Consider this: your life is never made worse by facing reality. But you have the potential to really screw your life up badly if you insist on sticking your head in the sand.
So, what fears are you avoiding? Perhaps it’s time to dig in and look them square in the face.
Is That Really Going to Happen?
Asking people to think about worst-case scenarios can be like handing a box of fireworks to a 7-year-old. In the hands of an emotionally stable individual, the technique I’m sharing can be very effective. In the hands of an emotionally broken individual, the technique will make things worse.
When you dig into your fears, a common mistake is to come up with an unlikely worst-case scenario. Don’t get trapped in gloom-and-doom thinking. Watch out for this especially if you tend to be emotional, catastrophizing, or habitually negative.
By asking you to find a worst-case scenario, I want you to actually find a realistic worst-case scenario! In my Vegas example I could have said, “Worst case is, I die in a horrible car wreck while driving to Vegas, or I get skin cancer from the scorching Vegas sun, or I catch AIDS, or…”
Sure, all that could happen. Then again, I could also get into a horrible car wreck no matter where I live. We’re interested in an apples-to-apples assessment. You don’t want to take freak accidents into account. You want to look for plausible scenarios.
It’s helpful to do this exercise with a coach. A good coach will prevent you from spiraling down into unrealistic negative thinking. If you’re doing this yourself, always remember to ask, “How likely is this to really happen?” This will keep the worst of the worst-case scenarios at bay.
Examination vs. Negativity
Examining your fears is not the same thing as negative thinking. Examination empowers while negativity dis-empowers. Examination is an inner game tool to be used consciously, for limited periods of time, to dissolve bothersome situations, which leaves you feeling strong. Negative thinking is a borderline neurotic tendency — an obsessive, unconscious compulsion — that drags out for hours and fixates on problems, which leaves you feeling helpless.