Do you feel compelled to be the “fix it” person for others?18 July 2023
Marion came to see me because she felt pessimistic and anxious most of the time. She faced each day expecting the worst – but was this helpful or harmful for Marion?
She was in a lowly paid, unsatisfying job, she was single, with few friends and no social life. Yet I sensed a capacity for so much more, she was intelligent, well-educated, attractive, I even caught a glimmer of a cheeky sense of humour! So what was holding her back? She was very unhappy with her life and wanted more but seemed too scared to even imagine a brighter future.
It had been drummed into her from a very young age that life was hard and she shouldn’t expect much, expect the worst and you won’t be disappointed was the message.
Marion and I talked about expectations and what actually happens when we anticipate the worst possible outcome, when we “brace” ourselves for the worst.
Have you ever been told, “brace yourself” before receiving news? Did you notice what happened? You might have felt tight in the chest or stomach, found it harder to breathe, maybe even gone a bit pale. These are all physiological changes related to the fear/anxiety response, a state where we don’t function at our best.
This is exactly what had been happening for Marion. Her habit of expecting a negative outcome was not only making her feel anxious and fearful but causing her to make limiting choices and poor decisions. She felt stuck in a negative feedback loop. is it possible her negative thoughts and low expectations were actually contributing?
We know that expectations can powerfully influence reality. Just think about the placebo/nocebo effect.
There are two key ways that expectations can shape reality. Firstly, we tend to behave in ways that fit with our expectations. If you expect to fail an upcoming test or interview, then you might not put much effort into preparing, which reduces your chances of doing well. This had actually happened to Marion and she’d missed out on a job she was more than capable of doing. Another disappointment reinforcing her pessimistic outlook.
Secondly, we can interpret a situation in line with our expectations. Imagine you believe you are insufficiently qualified for a job you’ve applied for. During the interview, you’re likely to interpret blank expressions from the panel in line with this belief, which could negatively affect your interview performance. In actual fact, the panel likely did not want to give anything away – a conclusion you might have drawn if you’d had a more positive outlook.
In sum, the influence of expectations on reality suggests that it might be better to hold positive expectations than to brace for the worst.
Research also supports the advice that it’s better to be more optimistic than pessimistic about an outcome. In a study of university students waiting for exam results, those who had expected the worst felt more pessimistic than usual in the weeks following the publication of results – even though they had in fact passed, with very good results!
When I suggested Marion try this more positive approach, her response was “But how is that going to work, I’m just imagining things going better for me. Now, I couldn’t argue with that, because yes, you are just imagining but by the same process aren’t you also imagining the worst possible outcome?
Marion accepted she didn’t have anything to lose by giving it a try. So with the help of hypnotherapy she practised what it feels like to do her best, to look forward to the opportunity to learn something new about herself and she learned to change the “brace” position for a more open, relaxed physical state.
So expecting the worst, is it more harmful than helpful? Marion was beginning to see just how limiting that old thinking had been. The last time I saw her she was doing really well, leaning into the possibilities of the positive.