Let’s say your boss doesn’t respond to your email.
You made a bold request. You want to take initiative on a new project and lead a team.
You keep checking your inbox, but nothing.
The email doesn’t show up.
What runs through your mind?
Some of us start to fear the worst: I was too bold. I’m getting fired now.
The more neurotic among us might worry about our boss: Oh no, I hope she’s okay. I better go check on her!
And some might start to question ourselves: I’m a fraud. I have no right to be working here.
But we don’t know why she hasn’t replied. Why worry about something that may not even be true?
Believing in Your Fear
Psychologists call this fear-driven inference. It’s when we believe something because we fear it.
- You see police lights in your rear-view mirror and your heart races. You assume it’s meant for you, and you’re getting pulled over.
- Your boss calls you into her office and shuts the door behind you. You think you’re getting fired.
- Your friend doesn’t call you for a few months you assume they don’t want to talk to you any more.
Whatever the situation, we get this feeling in the pit of our stomach that something is wrong. And so we act on that fear. We concoct a story in our mind about what happened. And we believe it. Then we act on it, often panicking and dumping negative emotions on others.
It happens all the time. But it doesn’t have to.
Fight the Fear, Don’t Feed It
Instead of feeding the fear with stories from our anxious imaginations, we fight it by looking for the facts.
What are the facts? Let’s take that first example: There’s a police car behind you with its lights on.
- You’re driving the speed limit.
- You’re not texting while driving.
- You’re up to date on your insurance and license plate.
- There are no other cars around you.
Do you have anything to worry about? Probably not. But there’s only one way to find out. Pull over and wait to hear what the officer says.
Maybe you have a tail light out. Or maybe, just maybe, they drive right past you. Perhaps they’re on their way to another call. Who knows, right?
By looking for the facts, we can stop worrying about these imagined scenarios in our minds. We can respond to what’s real.
In some situations, it also does us good to stop and consider alternative explanations for what we observe.
This time, let’s use the scenario where your significant other seems preoccupied with something. Again, let’s look at the facts:
- She asks you to repeat your question.
- The water boils over as she prepares supper.
- She keeps glancing over at the phone.
- Her leg is bouncing up and down like she’s nervous about something.
Due to fear-driven inference, some would assume she’s cheating. But the odds are she’s not. Our brains are just wired to consider worst-case scenarios.
Instead of allowing your mind to travel in that direction, consider other, more likely scenarios.
Maybe a friend of hers went into labor, and she’s waiting for the phone call that everything is okay. Or perhaps you forgot she had a doctor’s appointment that day, and she’s waiting to hear how the test came back. Or maybe she’s excitedly nervous about something, like if your daughter made the dance team.
Here’s a crazy idea: why not just ask her?
“Hey, honey, you seem preoccupied. What’s wrong?”
That will give you the answers you need without letting fear rule the day.
The next time you find yourself caught up in the fear and anxiety of the unknown, stop and take a look at what you do know. List the facts. Consider alternative explanations. Live free from fear; don’t let it control you.