By Jennifer Taitz
Ever felt as if the joy of a big win was contaminated with the stress of imagining when the pendulum would swing the other way and something awful would happen to balance it out?
If so, you’re not alone: Often, when driven people care about something and finally experience whatever they’ve been hoping to achieve — whether it’s a new relationship, a health goal, a promotion or something else altogether — they’re unable to entirely savor the good times. They may, in fact, do the exact opposite: endlessly worry about when their peak might plummet.
But taking yourself out of the moment to dread what might happen next won’t prepare you for disaster. Indeed, research has shownthat it’s the ability to experience positive emotions that improves our ability to cope with distress. Even better, research from Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, finds that experiencing positive emotions doesn’t set you up for disappointment, but increases your likelihood of achieving your work, health and relationship aspirations.
Between chasing goals and then worrying about losing your wins, it’s demoralizing to think that you can’t catch a break. But there are research-based techniques that can help you enjoy the nice life turns while quieting the nagging voices that suggest disappointment is waiting just around the corner.
Notice that worrying will only steal your current joy
In a paper examining the costs and benefits of negative expectations in the journal Emotion, researchers found that students who predicted getting a poor grade on an exam felt bad for days before receiving their results. Worse, their stressing didn’tdiminish the disappointment they felt once they got their scores.
One underlying reason people worry is that on some level they assume it helps. Yet we need to accept that we can’t perfectly prepare for potential challenges.
“There are an infinite number of bad things that could possibly happen (although most are unlikely), and there is just no way a person can anticipate them all,” according to Dr. Michel Dugas, a psychology professor at the University of Quebec.
Keep in mind that research has shown we are notoriously bad at predicting how we will feel in a given situation, and things often go better than we imagine they will in moments of fear. Dr. Dugas shared a takeaway a client observed: “I try to worry about everything bad that could possibly happen so that I won’t be taken off guard. What really bothers me is that although I do sometimes experience bad things, they are never the ones I thought about!”
Stop writing off hard work as ‘luck’
Humility is a virtue, but it doesn’t need to come at the expense of creating an enduring sense of faith in yourself. When you play down your accomplishments and abilities with self-deprecating attributions, entirely writing off victories to external factors like chance or timing, you not only perpetuate the belief that something negative is on the horizon, you also miss out on the power of self-efficacy — the mind-set that you have the ability to shape your life. Knowing you can rely on yourself motivates us to strive, and predicts your capacity to manage your emotions effectively and achieve what matters.
Remind yourself that a happy life is a balanced life
Emotional resilience hinges on many ingredients. Succeeding in one area, like your career or romantic life, won’t lead to total fulfillment. That can be hard to remember, especially after a big promotion or when a new relationship heats up. But it’s important to consider that you’re capable of deriving meaning from more than one aspect of your existence.
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“Our mind often overestimates the importance of some factors (money) and underestimates others (taking time off, being social),” Laurie Santos, a Yale psychology professor who teaches the popular course “The Science of Well-Being,” wrote in an email.
To broaden your perspective, sketch out a pie chart that includes the parts of your life that matter to you most, like friendships, health, work, relationships and hobbies. Then invest a bit of time and energy thinking about your aspirations in each domain. The more you engage in what matters to you, the more empowered you’ll feel.
A landmark Harvard study that followed more than 250 college sophomores for 75 years found that warm relationships were the biggest predictor of financial success. Incidentally, studies have also shown that volunteering is linked to health improvements in older adults, and exercise enhances academic achievement and reduces workplace burnout. So, if these activities matter to you, carve out time for them.
Focus on your values, not your goals
It’s easy to fall into the trap of measuring your worth by the various achievements you have reached. Instead, ask yourself:
- What virtues do I want to embody?
- How do I want to show up right now?
- What do I want my life to stand for?
Living your values — above and beyond reaching specific goals — is a way to meaningfully take charge of the things that are under your control while also helping you achieve your ambitions. In one study, students at the University of Nevada, Reno, were asked to either set goals or consider both their values and their goals. The students who both reflected on their personal values, like learning, while also setting specific goals, such as making honor roll, significantly improved their G.P.A.s.
Don’t believe everything you think
Instead of getting stuck in the negativity, it’s possible to learn to see your thoughts with distance and perspective.
One technique I use with my patients is to have them play with their thoughts. For instance, you might turn an upsetting phrase, like, “You’re not good enough,” into an upbeat rap song or repeat it as fast as you can until it loses meaning.
These strategies are known as cognitive defusion, a term attributed to Steven Hayes, a professor in psychology at the University of Nevada, Reno, and the author of the forthcoming book “A Liberated Mind: How to Pivot Toward What Matters.” This approach works in any number of stressful situations and can prevent you from taking unhelpful thoughts too seriously and allow you to focus more clearly on whatever you’re doing. In a study of people with a fear of public speaking, researchers found that learning to accept discomfort and create distance around thoughts of failure reduced anxiety and improved performance.
Helpful hint: Don’t only look out for thoughts about when you might ruin it all, but also thoughts like “I must always feel this great!” since that pressure will also thwart your joy.
Act the opposite of your impostor urges
To actually change your negative emotions, first focus on changing how you behave.
Let’s say, for instance, you’re someone who struggles with self-doubt. You know how this emotion affects your day-to-day life, because it’s your lived experience. But imagine how you might act if you weren’t struggling with self-doubt? Would you leave the office earlier to get to that workout class? Not respond to emails after 8 p.m.? Allow yourself to celebrate an accomplishment with friends? Rather than just imagining that life, try actually living it.
Try to focus on the little wins that happen to all of us, every day. Something I recommend for my patients to buy a small notebook and, each night, write down three accomplishments from that day. A little self-affirmation can pave the way to savoring the good things in life you might be overlooking.
@2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES COMPANY
Jennifer Taitz is a clinical instructor in psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of “How to be Single and Happy: Science-Based Strategies for Keeping Your Sanity While Looking for a Soul Mate” and “End Emotional Eating.”
A version of this article appears in print on aug,4,2019 Section B, Page 8 of the New York edition with the headline: Worried That Something Awful Will Happen?