"I'm afraid I'm going to get fired," my friend, confided in me one evening. Let’s call her Madison. She shared that her boss (“Jess”) had been curt over email for several weeks, and because of work travel, they hadn't been in the same room for some time. Madison’s self doubt and growing anxiety about the situation was readily apparent.
Whether with clients or friends, my first question in these kinds of situations is, “What do we know?” Here are some highlights from Madison’s scenario:
- She had been with the company for several years and is now one of the longest-serving employees.
- Given the nature of the work, it would extremely difficult and costly to replace Madison.
- There was no good reason to fire her.
- Jess was overworked and going through some hardships in her personal life.
- As she reflected more, Madison admitted that deep down she knew it was unlikely that she would get fired.
As she reflected more, Madison admitted that deep down she knew it was unlikely that she would get fired. Still, she found herself making lists of prospective employers in her head at every stoplight.
Madison kept imagining Jess being secretly so angry with her that with no warning, Jess would work against her own self interest, abruptly firing Madison and leaving her scrambling to find a new position. I like to call this line of thinking and self doubt “branch walking,” a term a friend’s father coined when she called him for advice.
Imagine the trunk of the tree is reality. Each time you say "but what if...?" you’re walking out onto a new branch. Branches don't get bigger the farther you get from the trunk of the tree, and the farther out you go, the farther you are from reality. There’s nothing out there but fear and doubt.
Another way to think about it is catastrophizing – irrationally imagining the very worst thing that could happen and assuming that’s the likeliest outcome. Madison was irrationally assuming that exclusively based on a few emails, losing her job was imminent. That’s seriously stressful.
While stressful if done passively, catastrophizing or branch walking with intention can actually be healthy. It can be empowering to get to that final set of figurative twigs on the very last branch and say, ”Ok, this is pretty unlikely and the very worst case scenario, but I could probably deal with it if it’s what happened.”
Unchecked, letting your mind wander and feeling like that worst case situation is likely, branch walking can evoke total fear and stress. Instead, when you find self doubt creeping in, try this:
Be present with your emotions . Sometimes we resist our emotions because we don’t like them or what we think they say about us. I’ve had clients dismiss their feelings as “stupid” or “irrational” and try to shut down the very real emotions they’re experiencing. As Swiss psychologist Carl Jung says, what we resist persists. Pushing away these feelings only makes it harder to navigate your situation. Challenging though it might be in the short term, acknowledging the feelings that come up can empower you to move forward.
Ask yourself, “What do I know? What’s the trunk of the tree in my situation, and what am I extrapolating from it?” Ask yourself if your fear is actually realistic or an unlikely worst-case scenario. If you’re stuck in your own head, it can be hard to evaluate your circumstances rationally. This is a great time to ask a trusted friend or advisor for help in evaluating the situation.
If it involves another person, strive to ask them open-ended questions. Rather than asking, “Are you mad at me?” which could evoke a one word response, open-ended questions are designed to give your counterpart an opportunity to share their experience without getting defensive. Madison could ask questions like, “From your perspective, how are things going on project X?” This way Madison is asking questions that promote a dialogue rather than the monologue of self doubt she’d been playing on a loop in her head.
After exploring her feelings and what was really going on, my conversation with Madison ended with her requesting a face-to-face meeting with Jess. She plans to ask questions about the work and about her job performance. She’ll ask if anything has changed for Jess in the past few weeks.
Madison still has that list of prospective employers on standby, but we’re both pretty sure she won’t need it.
A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.