As a particularly cynical 14-year-old (is there any other kind?) I remember telling people that you should always expect the worst in any situation, because then you’d never be disappointed and there was at least a small chance you’d be pleasantly surprised. I’m not sure I really believed it, but given the amount of time I spent picturing worst-case scenarios and never letting my hopes be known to anyone, including myself, it wasn’t from lack of practice.
At base, it was self preservation. If I prepared for the worst, I’d never be taken by surprise by hurt, disappointment or anger. I’d be protected from having to feel too deeply.
Strangely enough, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more optimistic. If I enter a competition, or buy tickets in a raffle, I spend at least some time picturing myself beaming, accepting a large gift basket of cosmetics or a set of plane tickets to Paris. But when it comes to situations where there’s more at stake, there’s still a part of me that urges restraint.
This past summer, I interviewed for a job that I really wanted. It’s fair to say that I’ve never interviewed for anything else where I felt the job description was so suited to my interests, or fit my qualifications so well. There was six stages to the process and due to the time of year, and holidays, it ended up taking about three months. Unfortunately, after I’d gotten through stage five, I got a phone call telling me thanks, but no thanks.
I was crushed. It was hard to get out more than a sentence to the person kindly explaining to me that although I seemed like a good fit, I wasn’t quite up to the level they wanted yet. I was lucky at the time to be in a job where I had my own office, so I didn’t have to find an empty bathroom stall to cry in. And the first thing I thought was how stupid I was to let myself get invested.
Because I had seemed to be doing well, and the whole process had taken so long, I really had gotten caught up in it. I pictured myself working there, making friends with the people I’d met, doing the kind of work I’d always wanted to do. I even saw myself at parties, telling people what I did for a living. After it ended, I was angry and embarrassed. I felt like I’d set myself up for a fall.
But the problem with always expecting the worst, is that you have to spend a lot of time picturing that worst case scenario. And having to continually be in that headspace, as I was a lot in my teens, is no better than experiencing actual hurt, disappointment or sadness. I was prepared for nothing except moderate anxiety 90% of the time. I wouldn’t have felt any better about not getting the job even if I’d pretended the whole time, to myself and everyone else, that I didn’t care.
After I gave myself a day or two to stop feeling sad, and was told by wise friends that there was nothing wrong with being passionate about things you aspire to be or do, I realised there were benefits to my daydreaming. For one, time that I’d spent picturing my new successful life had made me happy. They were moments that I was glad to have had. And, once I examined exactly what had made me feel happy, it ended up better defining my career goals, and realising what elements of that job I should be looking for with my next move.
I don’t believe much in the power of positive visualisation, in the sense that it’s supposed to deliver what you want. A great job, a dream apartment, meeting someone amazing – in my opinion, these are down to a fortuitous combination of preparedness, timing, circumstance and dumb luck. But I’m coming around to the idea that it’s ok to admit to yourself when you do want something, and to let yourself hope. At least, I’m probably nicer to be around than some know-it-all teenager.