What Ifs – The Negatives and the Positives

During a recent service our rabbi talked about the negative and positive “What Ifs” that we tell ourselves. The topic hooked my curiosity and took me down an interesting thought path. Having typically considered “What Ifs” as negative, I was intrigued to think about the ways in which they are positive. I realized that earlier in my life I had been quite risk adverse, spent a lot of time worrying about all the things that could go wrong and was slow to make decisions as a result of my negative “What Ifs”.

Most of us think about “What Ifs”. Some are paralyzed by “What Ifs” and some of us are excited and motivated by them depending on how we allow them to affect our thinking and lives. The habit of telling ourselves “What Ifs” is something that we often do unconsciously and it greatly impacts the actions, attitudes and quality of our lives without our realizing it.

What are “What Ifs”? I consider them to be the things that could potentially happen in the future or might have happened in the past. Let’s explore four types of examples of “What If’s” in more detail and begin with the negative perspective.

Future Catastrophizing: Jill has a headache and suddenly thinks “What if this is a brain tumor?” with no family history of the illness or data to support her leap to a dreadful conclusion. John is walking down the hall and sees his boss pass him with a frown on her face. Suddenly John asks himself “What if she is planning to call me into her office today and fire me?” when just last week he had received an exemplary employee evaluation and the company is in strong financial shape. These are examples of catastrophizing, when we take a fact or symptom and assume the worst about it. When people have a habit of repeatedly creating negative scenarios with “What Ifs” about the future, they cause serious stress in their lives.

Past Regrets: Tom was the captain of the football team in college and a terrific athlete. He was injured in a game during his junior year. While he recovered, some shoulder damage affected his athletic performance, ending his dream of being drafted by the NFL. While Tom went on to have a good life and career as a businessman he keeps thinking “What if I’d made it into the NFL? What if I’d been rich and famous!” He hasn’t come to terms with missing the opportunity to be a professional athlete, lives with past regrets and doesn’t appreciate what he has. When people keep themselves stuck in the past and don’t allow themselves to fully embrace the present and future, they can remain sad or even become bitter. They tend not to live in and value the present.

Now let’s switch to the positive perspective of “What Ifs.”

Future Planning: With all the construction occurring throughout the city, Jennifer thinks “What if the bridge I cross everyday is closed? How will I get to work every morning?” She decides to use her GPS to identify two different routes in case this happens. Once she has done so, she relaxes since she feels prepared. William is in college studying to become a physical therapist. He considers “What if there is a glut of people graduating when I do and too few physical therapy jobs available?” He determines that he will put a lot of effort into building relationships with his instructors, school career counselors and people he’s met in the field to increase his chances of finding opportunities when he graduates. When people assess, based on reasonable information, that certain situations might happen and take action in case it actually does happen, they are planning for the future by developing some alternatives that can be very productive.

Future Possibilities: Rhonda has learned that writing or saying affirmations such as “I have a new career that is a great match for me.” doesn’t reinforce her positive thinking as she intended but instead triggers all her negative beliefs like “I’ll never find something that I love to do. I don’t have any effective skills and experience.” After reading about positive “What Ifs” she tries a different approach and asks herself “What if I could find a career that was a wonderful match for me? What would that be like?” She finds herself circumventing the negative voice in her mind and becoming curious. Brainstorming tentative ideas, she types, “It would feel great to help people find their own way in the world. Friends, colleagues and neighbors often come to me with their problems and I ask questions so they can think things through. They tell me I’m really good at this! Hmmm, I wonder what kinds of jobs would allow me to have a helping role without telling people what to do?” By opening up her thinking and curiosity, she gives herself permission to explore many possibilities without triggering her negative beliefs. She finds this method very encouraging and helpful.

Having personally experienced both negative and positive “What Ifs,” I’ve found it useful to notice how and when they occur in my thinking. Once I’m aware of whether they’re positive or negative, I can make a conscious choice about what ones I want in my life. Then I can stop myself when I have negative “What Ifs” and mentally change them into positive ones. By developing a new habit of using positive “What Ifs” I’ve shifted my attitude to one of seeing many new possibilities and acting on the ones that I like best. I now help my clients change their “What If” habits to enrich their lives.

Are you aware of the “What Ifs” in your life? You may want to start noticing whether you have them, whether they’re negative or positive and whether they suppress or encourage you. The choice is yours!


Lorrie’s Learnings is a monthly e-article which shares my awarenesses, learnings, contemplations and anything else that comes to the mind of this life coach! Let me know the articles that give you new perspectives/thoughts/feelings, confirm what you’ve been thinking or move you into action. To receive Lorrie’s Learnings straight to your email inbox, click here!