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Combating the What-If Syndrome

Combating the What-If Syndrome

by Matt | 1 Year Sabbatical on September 21, 2010

Combating the What-if SyndromeIf there was an Olympic sport for worrying I would be up on that winners podium receiving the gold medal and singing the national anthem with tears streaming down my face.  Of course I’d also be thinking, “What if my singing isn’t any good?  What if people think I cheated? What if I have a wardrobe malfunction while singing really badly?”

I’m the guy who visualizes the worst case scenario and then believes that it will surely happen.  True to my nature I’ve got a hurricane of “what-if’s” whirling around my brain as I begin to plan and organize this 1 year sabbatical.  What if I can’t pay off all my debts in 10 months?  What if I contract some rare tropical disease or even worse?  What if I’m no good at home schooling my kids?  What if I run out of money?  What if I can’t get a long term visa?  What if I don’t like living in Indonesia?

Ever notice how all of our “what-if” questions tend to revolve around the negative?  They always seem to hinge on some facet of deep-seated worry or self-doubt.  Maybe we suffer from lack of self esteem or don’t really trust our skills and abilities.

Once you replace negative thoughts with positive ones, you’ll start having positive results ~ Willie Nelson

But “what-if” we flipped everything around and started using our what-if’s in a positive light?  What if I have a great time?  What if I discover that I thrive living overseas? What if I find the thing that I am most passionate about and can actually make decent money doing?  What if my kids experience the wonders of the other half of their culture and learn incredible life lessons? What if by giving up my job and doing something exciting I actually become healthier? What if giving up what I have now opens me up to incredible opportunities? What if I actually find happiness?

I think we can all agree that the power of positive thinking is of greater benefit than focusing on the negative.  And yet while we all know that and can all agree that it is true we continue to struggle with the what-if syndrome.  Why is that?

Nothing will ever be attempted, if all possible objections must be first overcome.  ~Samuel Johnson

I know for myself there are several factors that play a role in why I suffer from what-if syndrome.  First, I tend to be a control freak.  I like to know what is going on now and what is going to happen in the future.  The thing is none of us know what the future will bring.  It doesn’t matter how much I worry about the future the fact is things will happen that I cannot predict or even anticipate.  It’s this fear of the unknown or uncertainty of the future that stops so many of us from pursuing what we want to pursue.  It would be nice to have guarantees but unfortunately that is not how life works.  There will always be an unknown, always be uncertainty. How we deal with and handle that is key to moving forward.

Often I deal with a lack of self-confidence or self-doubt.  Am I good enough to become a successful and profitable photographer?  Do I really have what it takes to live overseas?  How am I going to be able to figure all this stuff out?  I think though when I look back on my past I can see that all the times I lacked self confidence and questioned my ability to do something that I ended up getting it done regardless.  We all are capable of doing so much more than we believe we are capable of doing.

Maybe one of the biggest setbacks for me is my fear of change.  I’ve grown way too comfortable with the way things are.  It’s amazing what we are willing to put up with in order to keep things the way they are.  It’s comfortable.  It’s familiar.  It’s routine.  We tend to be creatures of habit so when something threatens or interrupts the routine we go into protective mode.  We get stressed.  Feeling stress leads us to want to get rid of that stress any way we can and frequently the easiest way is to give up our dreams and sink back into the comfortable routine.  Think back to a time when you stepped outside of your comfort zone.  Wasn’t it exhilarating?  Having a routine is great but stepping outside that routine is what living is all about.

Why not go out on a limb?  Isn’t that where the fruit is?  ~Frank Scully

I don’t have the answers on how to break out of this and overcome these limitations.  I struggle with these things almost daily.  It’s easy to say don’t be afraid, or have more self confidence or to not think about the worst case.  It’s easy to say don’t dwell on the what-if’s.  But the truth is the application can be much more difficult.

But maybe a good start is to simply work on turning our “what-if’s” around and shine the light of positivity on them.  “What if I run out of money?” becomes “What if I am successful and become rich and actually enjoy life?”  “What if I don’t like living in Indonesia?” becomes “What if I really love it there and never want to leave?”  Slowly over time as we enrich ourselves with the power of positive thinking our minds will change and we’ll find ourselves living the dreams we never thought possible.

Do you suffer from “What-if Syndrome”?  If so I’d love to hear what ninja tactics you’ve used to combat the what-if’s.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Gillian September 21, 2010 at 5:49 pm

I can’t remember where I got this from, so I cannot properly attribute it. But I once heard that to combat the what-if’s and the worst-case-scenarios, you should look at them head on. Really, what is the worst case scenario? What would you do if that case actually really happened? And could you live with it? For example, if you really really hated living in Indonesia what could you do about it? You could decide you had to stick it out, or decide to move somewhere else, or return home…would any of these be unfathomable? For me, the worst case was having to return home from our RTW early…but I would have returned having learned a whole lot about myself…that is not failure…just another experiment. I predict success for you!


matt September 21, 2010 at 7:10 pm

Gillian, thanks so much for your contribution. I’m looking forward to going through your blog and your own adventures. You offer up some really good advice here. The worst case is never as bad as we really think it is and there is almost nothing that a person couldn’t recover from. I guess to give up on a dream based on some potentially false pretenses of what could happen would be foolish. The more people I meet such as yourself, that have taken off around the world the more confident I become that we are making the right decision. Good luck with your RTW Slideshow presentation. That would be cool to see!


Sarah September 22, 2010 at 7:06 am

Matt, I can say whole heartedly that I understand where you are coming from. I’m just about to book my flights for a trip to Asia next year which will start the ball rolling on quitting my job in preference of several years of travel and working abroad. And even though I’ve one this before, I’m worrying constantly over my own selection of what-ifs. The one thought that keeps me going though is this: ” if it scares you, you’re probably doing the right thing.” I’d hate to get through life and look back and think that I didn’t jump at these opportunities because I was scared of an outcome which might never even happen! Good luck in your adventures!


matt September 22, 2010 at 10:14 am

How exciting Sarah! I will definitely be following your journey. It’s sad how the what-if’s and the fears hold us back. I read recently in Chris Guillebeau’s book “The Art of Non-Conformity” that there are two ways to break out of situations we are not happy with: increase the pain of the current situation OR decrease the fear of ther desired situation. When I think about it that way it really is true. Only when my fear of NOT getting out and doing exciting things is greater than the fear of actually doing them will I actually make progress. I love what you said above: “if it scares you you’re probably doing the right thing.” Reminds me of a Ralph Waldo Emerson quote: “Always do what you are afraid to do.” Best of luck on your journey and thanks for your contribution to the site.


Deb September 24, 2010 at 3:23 pm

I suffer from a chronic case of “what-if”. It’s not a pretty disease. I’m 40 and so tired of my soul sucking job. I really just want to pack my daughter & camera up, kiss the husband bye (he has absolutely no desire to travel), and hit the road for 6-12 months. However, I keep running into the big “what-if” wall. Many of the negative “what-if’s” that you shared. I’ve focused on the negative for so long that I never considered changing it to a positive. What an eye opening moment. Thank you.

Happy travels….I look forward to seeing travel photos 🙂


matt September 24, 2010 at 4:27 pm

Deb, I read your comment here and I really feel for you. I know exactly what you are going through. It’s tough. Sometimes I just feel totally trapped and that I’ll never escape to the life that I desire. Sometimes I wonder if the vision in my head of what I would like my life to be like is reality or not. Finally I just got so sick of it all I decided I had to do something. That is when my wife and I agreed that moving to Indonesia would be a good break to sort things out, try some new things and live a slower paced life. Only time will tell if this journey meets our expectations. I think the key to it all is staying positive, having faith and truly believing that all things are possible. That is the mindset I have as I move forward with my planning. I wish you the very best with your own journey. By the way, I checked out your photography and love it. You have such a great eye. Beautiful work!!


Flynn Mathis September 26, 2010 at 1:04 pm

Hey Thats my up there!


matt October 3, 2010 at 6:26 pm

Yes it is nephew. Thanks for being such a cool model.


mike October 18, 2010 at 3:59 am

Hey Matt,
Thanks for this post.
I have just left a job I was in for 14 years to start my own sabbatical to discover and work on my passions. I find I also over-plan and try to control things and am strangely finding it tough to ‘decompress’ and relax after leaving my job (I have 5 more weeks at home before I hit the road on my journey). I am single so I am only responsible for myself but I think you are awesome for going for it with your family :o)
I look forward to hearing about your experiences.

Keep up the great work!



matt October 18, 2010 at 10:32 am

Congratulations Mike on taking a bold step in the direction of self-discovery. I’m anticipating the same struggles with ‘decompression’ and relaxation. Would love to hear more about your plans and journey. Shoot me an email if you get a chance.


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