Why Expecting the Worst Is a Bad Strategy

I have a very unusual, huge cat (22 lbs.) named Leo who is part bobcat and looks it: tremendous paws, tufts on the ears, leonine face, stubby little tail. I’m crazy about him. Last Tuesday night at around 9 p.m. I let him go outside (which I do once a week or so) for some exercise and playtime. Normally he stays out all night and is waiting on my doorstep in the morning for me to let him in. Well, last Wednesday morning I woke up, went downstairs and opened the door but Leo was nowhere to be seen. That in and of itself was not so unusual – he’s been known to wander the neighborhood for longer than one night.

I left for work and, after seeing a few clients, came home at 2:00 quite sure that Leo would be waiting for me at the door but – again, no Leo. Now I really began to worry, running through a good half dozen calamitous scenarios: “He hasn’t eaten since 6 p.m. last night – why isn’t he back? Maybe he got spooked by something during the night and lost his bearings. Maybe he got run over by a car. He does have a microchip implanted under his skin – if someone kidnapped him and then took him to a vet would the vet routinely check for a microchip? Should I post a reward? How much?”….etc., etc.

In my post “When Worrying Makes Sense – and When It Doesn’t” I stated that “Worry is a process undertaken by our minds to retrieve undesirable events from the past or the future and recreate them in the present”. Leo’s disappearance provided me with a vivid illustration of this statement. True, he hadn’t returned after 17 hours, which was abnormal, but one time about 4 years ago he had stayed out for 36 hours – twice that length of time. I used that remembrance to chill out for a while, but after returning to the office for some more sessions and then getting home at 7 with still no Leo, I once again went into a super-worried state. My mind began examining whether it would make sense to get a new cat, or perhaps a dog. Should it be a kitten (or a puppy) or an adult? I really should adopt a pet from a shelter to prevent an unnecessary euthanasia.

A Lesson From Leo

When I examined my thinking I realized I was creating and experiencing precisely the situation I did NOT want to be experiencing. I also realized that my worrying, hypothesizing, and planning were absolutely useless; that trying to decide in that moment what I would do if Leo did not in fact return was about as valuable as “deciding” what I would do if I came down with a serious form of cancer – I couldn’t possibly make an educated decision until I was actually in that situation and presented with real alternatives and their likely outcomes.

I often hear from clients that anticipating a bad outcome helps them mentally prepare for it. I have found this to be true virtually never. Anticipating the bad outcome only depresses them. If they were to lose a loved one, would a long illness give them time to better prepare emotionally for the death than a shorter illness? No; the death will be devastating in either case.

Unless you can take concrete steps that will contribute to a better outcome, don’t anticipate the worst. Leo will probably come back home, but if he doesn’t you’ll have plenty of time to decide what to do about it then – and your decision will probably be a better one.

P.S. – Leo reappeared at around 7 p.m.