I’m feeling a little depressed at the moment. It’s not atypical. For some reason, I don’t yet know why, I experience depression every Summer. This year I can look back and attribute most of it to anxiety, most of it to circumstances both in and out of my control. And as we enter Autumn, my favourite season, I’ve found a counterintuitive way of working through this anxiety, by thinking about the worst possible outcomes.
As always, you can read or listen to this story in full at ThomBruce.com.
What’s the worst that could happen?
This past month I’ve been heavily engaged with a company that sold me a product I don’t really understand, some form of reputation manager that allegedly connects to social network and directory platforms to provide businesses a broad presence online. I shouldn’t have bought it but, months ago, I wasn’t particularly assertive with their remarkably talented sales team. This team came at me from multiple angles, and through an aggressive effort to close took my disinterest off the table to be replaced with the binary choice, this product or that one. As a representative later told me, I had had plenty of opportunities to say I wasn’t interested - indeed I had done so, three times in one phone call according to the transcript - but I had never taken the opportunity to hang up. Let it be a lesson, if you want to start up in business learn to be assertive with cold callers, learn to abruptly hang up on them. According to this representative and illustrated by my experience, they do not take lack of interest for an answer; you have got to rudely and abruptly hang up. According to this company, you’ve got to be an asshole.
The product in question is restrictive, broken, and heavily overpriced compared with rival products. Yes, I was an idiot, I accept that. Politeness and lack of understanding for what I thought was a free trial period but was in fact a period of non-payment at the beginning of an ironclad contract got the better of me. And I’m paying for that mistake now, in part because I am contract-bound to do so financially and in part through contesting with this company via phone calls and online chat about their conduct (it has been poor). So when another representative responded to a comment I had left the company, I froze. My body trembled, I didn’t know what to do. It was just a message to me on their social media page but the notification terrified me. Familiar feelings of anxiety washed over me, but then I had an epiphany.
What’s the worst that could happen?
My conflict with this company is an attempt to not have to pay for a product that, less than doing nothing for me, hinders my efforts to manage my own reputation online. I know that the best outcome from my perspective is to be relieved of the contract and of the product, so that I can actually make beneficial use of the actually useful free dashboard which this product has replaced. That’s a best case scenario and nothing to fear.
But the worst that could happen? A rejection of my claims that this company have mis-sold me a product I don’t understand and a continued demand for the price of the product each month until the date I finally can cancel. That’s… where we’re at already.
My mind was primed to be anxious about this communication because I’ve had a tremendously negative experience with this company, but that negative experience is - in rough terms - where we’re at already. There’s nowhere to go but up or to remain in this state.
Rethinking the scenario in these terms, being more sure that there was clearly no more negative outcome to come, I felt a lot more confident about opening that message. And it was fine, it just said they’d get back to me after some review. Anti-climactic.
And as I reflect back on my anxiety, so much of it is vague and unconsidered. Anxiety is an unconscious fear of some outcome unknown, but if we consciously assess the outcomes ahead they’re often not so bad. Often we feel anxious when there is literally nothing to lose. Worst case scenario? Nothing happens.
Leaving the past behind and the future ahead
I’m stuck between two places at the moment, the past and the future. Like the story above, much of my recent anxiety can be attributed to activities that will lead me into running my own business. We can think back to my previous job and regret that, due to downsizing, they had to let me and several other developers go. And we could think further back to the company I worked with before them, from which I accepted low pay that was ultimately my reason for moving. The past is filled with variables, some that were within my control and others that never were. Accepting low pay was a poor decision on my part, but it was my decision. My last company’s downsizing was entirely out of my control. But so is all of it, now. I can no more change my past decisions than I can change how fate played out. The past is another world now.
And as I look to the future, I can worry about visions of it in which I don’t get enough clients or customers, or I can dream about the incredible growth of a product that might serve a million or more. Much of this has to be considered as it is essential I make some educated predictions and put these in my business plan. The outlook there is, understandably, favourable, but that doesn’t mean that reality will play out in quite the same way. One cannot tell how the future might unfold, but especially not if one merely dreams of it. Dreaming isn’t proactive, outcomes aren’t 100% predictable. What matters is not what the future holds, but what happens in the present that will lead towards tomorrow’s outcomes.
The past is well worth remembering, and the future well worth considering. Each can be a source of anxiety, but ultimately… neither can be interacted with in any real sense. It may help to remember bad experiences and to consider worst possible scenarios for the future, but anxiety is something of the now. It’s a painful form of procrastination. And what matters a whole lot more than past memories or future considerations are actions taken in the here and now.
Taking stock of the present
I recently took up meditation, which by the way is a phenomenally good way to relax. In fact I’ve bookmarked a specific practise in the guided meditation app I’m using which guided me through examining my emotions. I’d had a particularly anxious day or… week. So taking on that meditation saw me tuning into my anxiety and focusing my awareness on the physical sensations. A tight chest, restlessness in my arms and legs, and an irregular breathing pace were all present. Collectively these sensations contributed to another, one of depersonalisation, that I was able to tune into and to see that I felt outside of myself, detached from my body and not in control of it. In regular experiences of anxiety, these sensations are uncomfortable and inhibiting. But through meditation, through choosing to experience them fully, I came out of the other side with a feeling of ecstasy. The negative emotional experiences were a recipe for a more positive mindset when closely examined and experienced in full. Working through intense emotions can be difficult but wholly worthwhile.
The anxiety was, of course, rooted in my past and my future, two realms outside of my control. And it was only inhibiting in the present. It was a vague sense of agitation and hopelessness, as it always is. By looking to the past and saying, “that’s done, it’s behind me”, I can escape that. By looking to the future and asking, “what’s the worst that could happen?”, I can manage expectations and goals in the present. And by focusing on how I feel now, by managing it and exploring my present in detail, I can relax and reconfigure myself into a more productive state.
Things are pretty bad. I have seasonal depression to contest with and frequent bouts of anxiety, but we’re now entering my favourite season and I’m learning how to manage my present a lot better. I feel like I can confidently say, this is the Autumn of my fears. And as we move forwards into tomorrow, I’ll continue to ask myself, what’s the worst that could happen?