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The other day I was working with one of my clients – let’s call her Sara – and Sara was caught in an unhelpful “what if’ing” loop about a presentation she was delivering… you know what I’m talking about right…”what if I forget what I’m going to say”, “what if I’m boring”, “what if they notice I’m really nervous”… and it goes on.

This type of self-talk, isn’t unique to Sara.  How often have you noticed being in this type of dialogue with yourself?  How does it feel?  Well, I can tell you, it certainly wasn’t helping Sara to feel calm and confident about her upcoming presentation, which was one of her coaching goals.  Here’s the thing about our thoughts, they have power, they don’t just influence how we feel but they also influence how we act and behave.  So, when we get caught in a negative “what if’ing” loop, this will have a flow on effect and impact the results or outcomes that we get.  So if Sara had continued in this negative loop of thinking it’s likely that she wouldn’t have delivered her presentation as well as she did.

You may have even noticed doing some “what if’ing” about the COVID situation and our recent elevation of the levels – maybe something like, “what if I lose my job/money”, “what if this keeps going indefinitely”, “what if I/my loved ones get sick”, “what if this is all a big conspiracy theory to control us” etc.  The thing is that our brain loves this “what if” language pattern, particularly in relation to perceived potential threats.  This is part of our brain’s strategy to keep us safe through being on alert for threats, identifying them and then ideally doing something constructive about them.  However, we can get caught in the negative “what if’ing” and before we know it we can feel worried, anxious, scared, angry and a host of other emotions that can lead us to taking actions that aren’t always helpful or even ending up in “in-action”.

The good news is that you have choice and control over your “what if’ing” and you can even turn it around.  Now, don’t get me wrong, there are definitely times when it’s useful to consider the impacts of negative consequences, so that you can plan for them or mitigate them; that’s not what I’m referring to here.  What I’m talking about is when you get caught in that negative “what if” loop and it’s no longer serving a useful purpose for you i.e. to think through how you’ll respond in a resourceful way.

Busting the negative “what if” loop

Because our brain loves this language pattern, let’s work with it.  We can use the “what if” sentence structure to shift our thinking into more useful ways.  For instance, with Sara’s example she could equally be saying to herself things like, “what if I could feel calm and confident giving my presentation”, “what if I felt at ease”, “what if the group are really supportive”, “what if all of my practicing means that I can remember what I’m going to say” etc.

Here’s how you do it as a practice:

  1. Notice the unhelpful “what if” thought patterns
  2. Help yourself to feel calm e.g. through breathing techniques such as a counter breathing where you do a minute or so of shorter breaths in and longer breaths out from the diaphragm; a mindfulness practice; some self-Havening; some movement/exercise; or listening to a calming piece of music.
  3. Check in on how you want to be feeling about and relating with the situation e.g. “I want to feel more at ease”, “I want to get this into more perspective” etc
  4. Think of some more supportive “what if” statements that will help you to feel and relate this way (it’s important you feel more calm to be able to rationally think this through) e.g. “what if I could feel more at ease”; “what if I thought about this situation like xxxx”; “what if I can handle this situation” etc
  5. Now, start saying these statements to yourself for about a minute or so, as a daily practice or anytime you notice yourself getting caught in the negative “what if’ing” loop.
  6. Notice how you feel when you say these types of “what if” statements and what might be possible now.

Why this works

  • As I’ve said, our brain loves this language pattern – whether it’s used for negative or positive statements, it’s what I like to call “sticky” in the brain – so let’s use it for positive.
  • Saying a positive “what if” statement rather than going straight into an affirmation bypasses the brains bullsh!t detector – we don’t resist it as much. Whereas, for an affirmation to land, we need to believe it straight away or we’ll discount it.  However, with a “what if” statement we’re suggesting possibility, not an absolute way of thinking, and this creates less internal resistance.
  • You’re taking back control of your thinking and interrupting the unconscious negative loop.

Some tips

  • If I’ve taught you Havening Techniques™ you can use the Havening touches while you say your new “what if” statements and this will have you feel calm and accelerate the integration process. If you want to know more about this, get in touch or watch this video.
  • This isn’t about tricking yourself into a new way of thinking; your new “what if” statements need to make sense to you or feel possible. So, test them and work with the ones that are more believable.
  • If you notice that after saying these for a bit that you now feel that you really do believe these to be true, then you can turn them into an affirmation and drop the “what if”, for example “I am feeling calm and confident about my presentation”.
  • If you’re noticing any of your staff or coachees falling into this negative loop you can help them create new ways of relating and feeling by helping them to notice the pattern and construct new “what if” statements.

Have fun turning around your unhelpful “what if’s”, I’d love to hear how you’ve gone – pop a comment below.

If you’d like some coaching to help you bust your negative thinking loops, get in touch

If you’d like to find out how to powerfully coach others to think and feel in more resourceful ways, check out our Coaching Essentials for Leaders Programme.