Brace Yourself for Disappointment!

I can recall many times in my life where I’ve been waiting for big news and was worried that things wouldn’t go my way. There were college and grad school applications. Job interviews. Promotions. Book proposals. And even, yes, elections.

I’ve never known the best way to make it through these waiting periods. Often they feel agonizing, my mind vacillating between imagining the best possible outcome and bracing myself for the worst. These are often times where my sleep suffers, and I spend the hours between 2:00 am and 4:00 am with dark thoughts about what the future might bring (not to mention all of the mistakes I’ve made along the way).

One of my main coping mechanisms during these times of uncertainty is thinking through the potential disappointment. I know I’m not alone. 2020 has been a year of disappointments — often serious and grave ones — for so many people, from job losses to school closures to illness and death. And there are likely more disappointments on the way. There are the leaders who are anticipating the possibility of more layoffs, the small business owners who aren’t sure if they can survive another mandated closure, and the parents who aren’t sure how they will perform their jobs if schools can’t remain open.

So how do you prepare yourself for what might be a large, perhaps even life-changing, disappointment? Is it better to think it through ahead of time? Or do you just end up wasting energy and causing yourself anxiety when you can’t know the outcome yet anyway?

I wanted to better understand how we could brace ourselves for big news so I asked two experts to weigh in. Here’s their advice.

Ask yourself if worrying helps.

Here’s the thing: Sometimes worrying does help. It can spur you to become better prepared — mitigating your anxiety in the long run. “If you want to succeed and you worry you might fail, the gap between those realities creates motivation to take action,” says Art Markman, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Bring Your Brain to Work: Using Cognitive Science to Get a Job, Do it Well, and Advance Your CareerIf you’re worried about losing your job because of the economic downturn, for example, you might get your finances in order or reach out to former colleagues who might know of job leads. This is called “defensive pessimism.”

But if you’ve already done all that you can do to affect the outcome — perhaps the job interview is completed, you’ve made your case to a potential funder, or you’ve voted and made calls for your candidate — then agonizing doesn’t do you much good. “In those moments when the outcome is utterly out of your control, the worry is only going to create heat,” Markman says. “Energy with direction is work, but energy without direction is heat, and it comes out as worry and anxiety.” So ask yourself if the negative emotions you’re feeling will actually compel you take further action that would help “stave off the negative outcome.”

Think through what you will do in the worst-case scenario.

One action you might take, for example, is gathering the resources you’ll need to get through the disappointment. “Sometimes the worry helps because it forces you to think about contingencies and how to be ready,” says Markman.

Zoe Kinias, an associate professor at INSEAD who studies resilience, says that you can bolster yourself by playing out the possible negative outcome. If it helps you imagine how you’ll survive the worst-case scenario, thinking through your disappointment “steadies the anxiety of anticipation in the moment,” she explains. For example, if you’re waiting to hear about a new job, Kinias suggests you might tell yourself, “There will be other opportunities. I have the skills and experience to be up for consideration. So if I don’t get this, I’ll keep trying, approach the problem in a different way, or do something a little bit different next time.”

There are also several research-backed ways that you can prepare yourself for a negative outcome. Kinias points to self-affirmation techniques in which you reflect on your core values and how you carry them out, by being a good friend or participating in community service, that can “buffer resiliency in advance of disappointment.” She also suggests mindfulness practices where you focus on your breath: “breathing slowly and consciously, experiencing the inhale and exhale through simple guided mediation.” She explains that this helps “to release both negative emotion and attachment to sunk costs.” You can also reach out to people who share the same worry or who can provide help if and when you need it. Any of these practices can help make you more resilient in the face of disappointment.

Balance worry with hope. (Yes, it’s okay to hope.)

As someone who is irrationally superstitious, I’ve often resisted the idea of imagining a positive outcome, thinking it will somehow curse the process. Of course, this is rubbish.

“Thinking positive thoughts is fine. A certain number of fantasies about what you would do if you reached your goal can be helpful,” says Markman. You might imagine what you’d wear to the first day of your new job, or think through who you’d call to share in the good news.

Kinias suggests adopting Maya Angelou’s words from I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: “Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between.” In Kinias’ experience, successful leaders have the capacity to anticipate and plan for setbacks, but this tactic works best “when balanced with positivity and an ability to enjoy and experience the present moment, through optimism, mindfulness, and social support.” Being both planful and hopeful can improve wellbeing and make us more resilient if and when the worst-case scenario comes true.

Temper your confidence.

You can be hopeful but you don’t want to be overconfident. Not even entertaining the possibility of the negative outcome can be emotionally devastating. “The risk is when people are blindsided with overconfidence — as many Hillary Clinton supporters were in the 2016 presidential election. They were already planning how to celebrate,” Kinias says, before the electoral college votes were counted.

Don’t rehearse your misery.

You won’t guard yourself against pain by trying to feel it ahead of time. As Markman says, “there’s no way to prepay your pain.” And reinforcing negative emotions can cause more pain in the leadup to and after the disappointment, explains Kinias.

Feeling your misery in advance of the news also isn’t helpful because we aren’t very good at predicting future emotions, as extensive research from Dan Gilbert, Tim Wilson, George Loewenstein, and Daniel Kahneman has shown. We tend to overestimate the intensity of negative feelings, like sadness, anger, and frustration, and we think we’re going to experience them longer than we actually do. Researchers call this “affective forecasting,” and the reality is that negative events usually prove to be less intense emotionally and the bad feelings are more transient that we expect.

Reframe the anticipated pain.

Wanting something really badly means that you care, and that’s a good thing. “There will be a sting if you don’t get it, and the pain is often proportional to what you invested,” says Markman. So when you’re worried about how devastated you might feel, remind yourself that that’s the cost of caring.

And the goal in life isn’t to avoid all negative feelings. If you did that, you’d rarely put yourself out there and try to reach your goals. So, you might think of the pain as a good thing and allow yourself to grieve if things don’t go your way. “Being aware of a negative outcome can help you get your resources in a row, but you are still likely to have to go through a grieving process for anything that makes a tear in your life story,” says Markman.

And remember to keep it in perspective. If you don’t get the outcome you want, all of the effort you put in this time is setting yourself up for your next time at bat. “If you consistently go after things, you set yourself up for success down the line,” Markman says. In other words, just because you lose one round, doesn’t mean the fight isn’t worth fighting.

Distract yourself.

Much of this advice might fall into the category of “easier said than done,” especially when you’re staring at your ceiling in the middle of the night. That’s why Markman says some of the best tactics to steel yourself while you wait involve distracting yourself. He suggests watching a silly movie that makes you laugh, practicing mindfulness by taking deep, focused breaths, or going for a run — anything he says, that will “decrease the energy.”

This last tip is the one that I’ve been putting to good use over the past few days. I’ve never been more thankful for a new season of the Great British Baking Show. And when the distraction no longer works — or I’m out of new episodes — I’m trying to remind myself that I’m worried because I care and it’s perfectly fine to be hopeful.

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