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The Dangers of Playing “What If?”

How many times a day do you play "what if"? Are you even aware that you’re playing it? But many of us start our day doing exactly that


  • What if I hit the snooze button one more time?
  • What if I chose a different route to work?
  • What if I eat something different for breakfast?


Hundreds and hundreds of times we repeat this process.


  • What if I express my discontent to the boss?
  • What if I just didn’t turn up today?
  • What if I called in sick?


It’s at the heart of everything we do.



But when you play ‘What if?’, how does it impact your life and your work?


The ‘what if’ game can have a positive or negative outcome for you. If you’re not aware you’re doing it, you might not understand how it’s affecting your life and career.


When we play ‘What If?’, we’re projecting our expectations onto a situation: “If I hit the snooze button, I might be late again and then there’ll be a disciplinary meeting and I might get fired. I definitely won’t be considered for that promotion!”


When we project forward positively, our thoughts may take this path: “If take on that project, I’ll learn how to manage a team and then I could go for that promotion next year.”


So you have a choice: you can either expect the worst outcome (negative expectations and projections) or the best (positive expectations and projections).


This might lead you to think that being positive all the time is the ideal, but this isn’t necessarily the case.


In fact, a new MRI study from University College, London suggests the reverse may be true. When we have low expectations, we’re less likely to be disappointed and appreciate what we get. As a result, we’re far more likely to be happy. The opposite is also true. When we have high expectations that aren’t manifested, we feel disappointed and let down so we’re less happy.


When we consider taking a positive action, like asking for a raise, and we only anticipate a good outcome (boss says ‘yes’, we get more money and we’re happy and everything’s wonderful) we’re unprepared for a negative outcome (boss says ‘no’, we don’t have more money and everything’s rubbish). The logical conclusion is that if we want to be happy, we need to have things go better than we anticipated.


But this goes against what you’ve probably always believed about having a positive attitude. That’s because positive thinking is the holy grail of personal development. We’ve been led to believe that if we want to be happier, we need to have a positive attitude and outlook on life.


Where does having low expectations fit with this philosophy of life, success and happiness?


If you’re not positive, you might be concerned that you won’t get what you want and if you’re too positive you might risk being unhappy (because you might be disappointed).


It looks a bit like a lose-lose scenario. That’s not good.


There must be a middle way.


There is, and the best way to realize it is to be more aware.



The pros and cons of positive What Ifs


It’s easy to see the advantages of positive expectations but it’s not so easy to understand the pitfalls.


If you only ever expect great things to happen to you, you could easily feel knocked when the anticipated result doesn’t materialise. Of course, there’s always the chance that you might end up experiencing one positive outcome after another. Wouldn’t that be great?


But it’s easier to understand this by using ‘what if’ as an example: “What if the boss walked up to me today and offered me a promotion?”


Now, the result of this expectation could simply be a good feeling and a sense of hope and possibility. But if you constantly expect positive results and they don’t materialise, you could set yourself up for a lot of problems. Can you imagine turning up to work each day and wondering whether your boss is going to offer you a promotion? By the end of a month, you’re probably going to be feeling pretty disappointed that your expectation hasn’t come about.


That’s because, even though you’re thinking positively, your expectations may not be realistic –at least not in the time frame you set. They may not be realistic because you’re not backing up your expectations with appropriate action that will deliver the outcome you want.


It’s also possible your expectation of being offered a promotion is just wishful thinking and not based on reality at all. You may believe that positive thinking and hopeful expectations will bring you opportunities, but if the company is in trouble or someone else is going to get that promotion --and you’re not seeing it -- you’re going to suffer a lot of disappointment.


So being overly positive can be a trap because having positive expectations in the face of contradictory evidence can simply mean you spend a long time hoping for what's never going to happen.


That doesn’t mean you should stop being positive, though. Looking forward optimistically means you’re far more likely to see the opportunities available and muster the can-do energy and attitude that gets you noticed. But positive expectations need to be balanced by an objective assessment of what’s going on around you. You’ll experience less disappointment and it's easier for you to plan and take steps towards achieving your goals.



The pros and cons of negative What Ifs


If you’ve suffered a lot of disappointments recently, having more pessimistic expectations might seem like a good way forward. But before you become a regular Eeyore, let’s look at why negative expectations can be as damaging as over-optimistic ones.


As you’ve seen, when it comes to expectations, there’s a school of thought that says if you always expect the worst, you’ll never be disappointed.


That’s true, but it also has some dangers built into it. For a start, you could easily find your moods on a negative downward spiral. That’s never going to be a good thing. The other problem is that if you never expect anything good to happen, you could miss out on opportunities open to you. You’ll never consider a positive outcome and you might stop going for what you want.


You’ll never ask ‘what if the boss offers me a promotion?’ because you’ll be too busy wondering ‘what if the train’s late again today?’


If you expect nothing good, you won’t see the point of planning your career, gaining new skills or getting more experience. If you don’t ever wonder whether your boss is going to offer you a promotion, you’ll automatically remove yourself from the running simply because you never push yourself forward. You’ll end up making yourself invisible because you can’t see the point of being visible. And when that happens nobody will notice your skills or abilities. That in turn means you won’t be offered the chance to grow and develop yourself or your career.


This is the kind of negative spiral that could result in you getting stuck.



It’s all about balance


The way forward is most definitely balance. You need to balance optimism with a reality check and negativity with an appreciation of what could be.


Let’s say you’ve recently applied for a promotion at work and you’re waiting for your boss to tell you whether you’ve got it. When you consider the ‘What Ifs’ in a balanced way, they could look like this:

“What if the boss offers me the promotion? Wow, that would be amazing. But… what if she doesn’t? Hmm, I’ll need to think about whether to try again or go elsewhere.”


Can you see having a more balanced outlook puts you in control of the situation? If you get the result, great. If you don’t, you’re the one who decided what to do next.


But how do you get to this point? It all starts with greater self-awareness.


Become aware of your negative expectations


The first step to a more balanced approach is to be aware of the ‘what if’ scenarios running through your head. Use these questions to help you become more aware of your thoughts.


  1. “What negative things do I expect will happen?”
  2. “On a scale of 1-10, how certain am I that this is going to happen?”
  3. “How am I going to recognize that this expectation has come true?”
  4. “How am I connecting this situation to previous ones I have been in?”


Let’s look at a real situation. Say your boss asks you to give a presentation at the next sales conference.


  1. You might instantly experience negative emotions because you’re afraid you’ll fail. You have images of yourself on a stage in front of the whole company making a mess of your presentation.
  2. What’s worse is that you’re feel pretty certain this is going to happen: on a scale of one to 10, your certainty level is 7.
  3. You’ll know your expectation has been realised when you walk up on stage and can’t get your words out in the right order! You feel stupid and incompetent.
  4. When you think about how this situation is connected with previous attemps, you remember your disastrous sales presentation at your last company.


Identify negative behaviours


It’s not surprising that your first response in this situation is to protect yourself from feeling inadequate or stupid. However, you'll only do less and less and feel increasingly negative. That will seriously hamper your personal and career development.


Even if you avoid giving a presentation at the sales conference this time, you might have to do it another time. Not doing the presentation might also result in you missing opportunities. You'll be seen as someone who can’t deal with their fears and grow into a more demanding role.


The other problem is that if you always expect yourself to do everything perfectly, you’ll raise your expectations of yourself to an unattainable level. Being willing to fail is critical to your ability to learn, gain new skills and take on challenges.



Create realistic expectations


You can begin to dismantle your negative expectations of yourself by asking the questions below.


  • “Just because I believe something, does it make it true?”
  • “What objective evidence do I have that my negative expectations are going to come true? Has someone else told me that they would? Has something similar happened before?”
  • “If a previous situation has triggered my current negative expectations, how are the two situations different and could the outcomes of this one be different?”
  • “Realistically, what’s the worst that can happen? And what if it does?”


As you answer these questions, you’ll build more realistic expectations of yourself which are neither tilted towards being too optimistic or pessimistic.


And really, what if you do hit the snooze button this morning? What’s the worst that can happen? Get some perspective and start believing that no matter what happens, you can handle it. Do reach out to us at Career Consultants if you feel you would benefit from some professional career advice.



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