Why you expect the worst (and how to stop)

expect the worst
Photo by Rosie Kerr on Unsplash

The first therapist I ever saw gave me a book called Learned Optimism. This after finding out I suffered from a chronic need to expect the worst out of every situation.

Along with the book, she came at me with logic. She appealed to my brain, which at the time only worked against me.

What difference would it make to the outcome if I felt excited or hopeless, she asked. May as well enjoy the time waiting with hope rather than dread, she reasoned.

For example, while waiting to hear about a job I’d applied for, I could choose to spend my time anticipating a positive result. Or I could deprive myself of that good feeling and fear a rejection instead.

The trouble with such a sensible approach is that the traumatized brain does not work on logic. It doesn’t care what’s better for you or what feels good.

The traumatized brain does not work on logic. It doesn't care what's better for you or what feels good. Click To Tweet

Why you expect the worst

The traumatized brain is tasked with keeping you safe at all cost. That’s why it starts expecting the worst as a coping mechanism.

If you were a child who rarely got what you wanted, you would learn to downplay your expectations as a way to avoid bitter disappointment. It felt unsafe to expect the best when the best never came.

That’s the logic of the inner child trying desperately to protect itself. And it’s an incredibly intelligent thing to do.

Your inner child did whatever it took to keep you alive, even when that meant depriving you of good feelings. Good feelings vs. life itself = no contest.

As a result, you may have noticed that good feelings seem like a luxury afforded other people. That’s because good feelings would have been costly to a child left to its own devices.

When you’re tasked with staying attuned for threats, as neglected children are forced to do, good feelings go out the window. The hypervigilance required to keep yourself alive left little room for “positive vibes”.

When you're tasked with staying attuned for threats, as neglected children are forced to do, good feelings go out the window. Click To Tweet

Besides, those around you rarely considered how you felt. As a result, you learned that how you felt didn’t matter.

So, when the therapist offered me logic as a solution to my problem of expecting the worst, she missed the mark entirely.

Understand why you expect the worst

expect the worst

What I needed instead was to understand why I felt afraid to expect better than the worst. Despite the fact my intake included an in-depth report about my neglectful upbringing, she failed to put the two together.

That’s because in the early 90s they misunderstood the impact of childhood trauma on adult outcomes. And, sadly, many therapists still do not have a good enough grasp of the concept.

I realize now after doing my own research, that my dogged refusal to embrace a spirit of optimism had to do with survival. And, some of that could also be attributed to my nature.

But my brain’s bias toward abject dread leading up to an unknown outcome? That’s an effect of childhood trauma.

Only when I discovered why I could only expect the worst and that hoping for better felt unsafe, could I start to change it.

How to stop dreading the outcome

I had to thank my inner child for protecting me from disappointment. I had to stop looking at my tendency to expect the worst as something to be fixed through logic and positive thinking.

Instead I spoke to my inner child and let her know that she no longer had to keep me safe from all possible outcomes. That it was okay to hope because I was an adult now and could handle a negative outcome.

You have to teach yourself that you deserve to feel good, even when nobody taught you that growing up. You get to become your own parent and remind yourself that you’re worthy of positive outcomes and sometimes you’ll get them!

We get to practice using our power to influence those outcomes instead of feeling ineffectual and passive.

You no longer have to accept that life happens to you. Instead, you can navigate your ship in the direction you want it to go.

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  1. Tracey


  2. Helen Gibson

    Omg… that’s just made sense

    Thank you so much