The Danger of “What If” – My Struggle With OCD
When I was 17 or 18 I was having a rough month in my OCD thoughts so I scheduled an appointment with my therapist who I had not seen in years. When I went into his office we talked and caught up and he asked me what was going on inside my head. I told him all that I was thinking and after maybe five minutes of talking he stopped me and said, “Do you hear yourself?” I wasn’t sure what he was talking about. He proceeded, “All of your sentences are beginning with the words ‘What if?’” I wasn’t sure where he was going with this. He continued, “The words ‘What if?’ are the most debilitating words anyone with anxiety can say. They should be worse than the ‘F’ word to you because they cause much more damage than the ‘F’ word could ever cause.”
Now before I cause any panic, my therapist was not saying that the “F” word wasn’t bad, but rather that the words “What if” are much more debilitating to someone with an anxious mind than the “F” word ever could. He was right.
As I have talked with friends and strangers who experience anxiety I have found that they ALL say or think the words “What if.” So where is the danger in thinking these words? Let me explain.
The words “What if” immediately mean you are thinking in the worst case scenario. For a light-hearted example I once heard a buddy say, “What if I fail this test? I will become a hobo!” How did he make that conclusion? I heard a therapist explain this as negatively connecting the dots: “If I fail this test, that means I won’t get into my program in school. If I don’t get into my program at school, that means I won’t get an education. If I don’t get an education then I won’t get a good job. If I don’t get a good job then I won’t get money to provide for my family. If I don’t get money to provide for my family then we are all going to be homeless.” He went from failing a test to becoming a hobo! Now my friend wasn’t completely serious but sadly enough we see examples that aren’t too far off from this one. Instead of negatively connecting the dots we should positively connect them. “If I fail this test then that means I will study harder and do better in the class. If I do better in the class then I will get into the program or find another program.” I have never seen the worst case scenario come true and more often than not the more positive scenario occurs.
The other danger of saying the words, “What if” are you doubt yourself and examine a situation to the point of it being unrealistic. I know for myself I look at a situation that gives me anxiety and I review it in my mind over and over again. When I feel like I have come to a positive conclusion to that situation, then I think of a whole new situation that could occur from a different angle I had not thought of before and I am back to feeling anxious about the same thing! I could do this a thousand times with the same situation. Saying in my mind, “What if I didn’t think of it this way? What if this happened instead?” This occurs in social anxiety, panic attacks, or general anxiety. The remedy for this is simple and comes in two words: Screw it.
Sorry for my language, but my therapist introduced this tactic to me the same day he told me the words “What if” were just as bad as the “F” word. He told me that when I want to say the words “What if” replace them with the words “Screw it.” In other words, don’t worry about it! Forget it! Things will be okay! It was terrifying to think about, and I thought, “But what if they didn’t work out?” There it goes. I had said the words “What if.” So from there on out anytime I wanted to say “What if” I replaced them with the words “screw it” or “forget it.” It took practice but over time when OCD thoughts came into my head I was able to stop obsessing over them and just say to myself, “screw it.”