Elizabeth Day: The power of negative thinking

As a child, I spent a lot of my time feeling apprehensive. My apprehension was sometimes vague and unfocused – a generalised sense of impending dread – but mostly it was specifically related to things that might happen involving people I knew.

Dan Kennedy

My feverish imaginings would include: my friend at school suddenly deciding she liked someone else. My teacher giving me a bad mark. My entire family dying in a terrible car crash. That kind of thing.

Back then, I was what was called ‘a worrier’. Nowadays, I would no doubt be termed ‘someone living with generalised anxiety disorder’. I worried all the time, but if I’d been told I had an actual condition, I probably would have worried about that, too.

It was at this point that my mother, herself a worrier, gave me a sage piece of advice.

‘If you’re worried about something happening, it probably won’t happen.’

Her point was that most of life’s crises come out of the blue. They are shocking and terrible because we aren’t prepared and no amount of magical thinking can protect us.

It might sound dark for a nine-year-old, and it’s probably not the best piece of advice I’ve ever received, but it was exactly what I needed. My mother knew the relief I would feel on hearing this.

I have noticed that people who worry can also be sensitive and empathetic. They are the ones capable of envisioning different ways of being, who can sense a small shift in mood or atmosphere and who can tune into what others are feeling (before wasting hours worrying that they’ve upset them).

It strikes me that another word for worrying is simply ‘thinking’. When faced with the complexity and nuance of the world, surely the reasonable response is not blithe ignorance and a ‘well, I’m sure it’ll be fine’; it is ‘Argh, there is so much that could go wrong, how the hell is everyone coping with this?’

As an adult, I’m a firm believer in the power of worry and constructive pessimism. We are constantly bombarded by the positive-thinking brigade, who create inspirational Pinterest quotes such as ‘Good Vibes Only’. These are people who will use exclamation marks liberally in texts, who will have the words ‘Live, Laugh, Love’ hanging somewhere in their kitchen and who will make you feel bad for… well, feeling bad, as though it were a virus as contagious as Covid rather than an essential part of the human condition.

Constructive pessimism, by contrast, encourages us to imagine the worst. Then, having imagined it, we ask ourselves: ‘Could I cope with this?’ Mostly, we will be able to say yes. Obviously we don’t want bad things to happen, but if we are forced to live with them, generally speaking, we can find unexpected stores of resilience. The likelihood of the worst-case scenario happening is minimal, in much the same way as the best-case scenario is often a pipe-dream. The reality will likely lie somewhere in the middle. Imagine, for instance, that you’re worried about losing your job. The worst-case scenario is that you’ll be sacked without notice. Could you cope? It would be uncomfortable and difficult and you’d have to find another way of making a living pretty sharpish. But you could probably cope. The best-case scenario is that your boss promotes you on a massively inflated salary that means you can retire in six months and never work again. This is, I’m afraid to say, unlikely. The truth, aside from what your anxious brain is telling you, is that you’ll probably potter along somewhere in the middle. So you can stop worrying about it.

This, anyway, is my somewhat screwed-up view of the world. I hope it helps. I will try not to worry if it doesn’t.

This week I’m…

Stocking up

On snow tiger Christmas cards from Papier.

Watching

The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City. Available on Hayu.

Embellishing

My lobes with Tada & Toy gold-plated hoop earrings.