Banishing Butterflies: Visualizing and Analyzing Worst Case Scenarios

Have you ever been told to “visualize success”?

Success visualization is a tool used to bolster performance by imagining the desired outcome has already occurred.  It’s a great way to get psyched up for a job interview, presentation, or competition.

A great way, that is, when you’re already confident in your abilities and need an extra jolt of energy or determination to take your already stellar performance to a higher level.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well when you’re suffering from shyness, nerves, fear, anxiety, or lack of confidence.

I have to admit, I’ve spoken so many times to so many audiences in my life, that I am almost immune to butterflies before a speech.  But, I do have anxieties about a lot of other things.  A lot of other things. The way I’ve learned to deal with my fears is to visualize and analyze the worst case scenario.

Maybe there’s something wrong with me.  There probably is.  But visualizing my worst fears and analyzing what would happen if they all came true, actually comforts and calms me.

You see, like many folks, I hate uncertainty.  Most of my anxieties stem from not knowing how things will go … being worried that they will go badly.  That’s what a lot of people fear about public speaking.

What if I fall on the way to the stage?  What if I can’t make a sound?  What if people laugh at me?  What if my fly is undone?  What if I burp while I’m speaking?  (Confession: I was obsessed with that last one back in high school).  What if I sound stupid?  What if I fail?

Here’s a quick guide to Worst Case Scenario Visualization & Analysis.  A way to banish those pesky butterflies that make tummies ache.

Step 1:  Name the fears

Start the eviction process by giving each butterfly a name.  What exactly do you fear might happen?  Be as specific as possible.  Name every fear that comes to mind.  Write them down.  Say them out loud.  See them.  Hear them.  Tell them to someone else.

Step 2:  Sort them into rational and irrational fears

By naming fears, we can see that some of them are downright ridiculous.  Here’s one I said out loud to my husband last night:  “I’m afraid all my clients will decide they don’t want to work with me.”

Step 3:  Answer each irrational fear

Articulate the reasons a fear is irrational.  For example: “My boss isn’t going to fire me if this presentation is terrible, because I am amazing at every other aspect of this job and he wouldn’t know what to do without me.”

Other people can help you out with this task.

In his straightforward way, my husband made mincemeat of my fear of losing all my clients.  “That’s stupid,” he said bluntly, before going on to explain all the reasons why my clients chose me in the first place and continue to choose me.

Once we’ve answered an irrational fear, we’re released from at least some of the dread and anxiety, freeing us up to focus on positive action.

Step 4:  Visualize rational fears as reality

To confront these fears we need to imagine that each one has actually happened.  Can you feel your heart racing as you imagine falling flat on your face in front of an audience?  I can, and I don’t like the feeling.

Step 5:  Think about what happens next

Here’s where visualizing the worst case scenario really kicks in.   Pick a rational fear, visualize it happening, and ask yourself: then what?

If I fall flat on my face, some people will laugh.  Some people will be concerned.  I will be embarassed.  But my life won’t change in any real way.  It won’t be fun, but I’ll get over it and go on doing what I normally do.

Now let’s take it one step further: imagine I let my embarrassment derail my presentation and I make a complete mess of that, too.  What happens next?  Some people will notice.  Some people won’t.  I will be further embarrassed.  But my life won’t change in any real way.

See how this works?  We can visualize more and more awful possible outcomes, and the answer (almost) every time will be: “I’ll be embarrassed, but my life won’t dramatically change in any real way.”

We’ve all heard it before, and it’s true: This too shall pass.

You Will Survive!

At one time or another we’ve all been so embarrassed that we thought we would never be able to hold our head high again.  (I am thinking of something that happened to me in junior high … something so embarrassing that even 20 years later my face is burning, and I can’t bring myself to tell you what it is.)

But when the worst happens — and most of the time, it doesn’t — the embarrassment doesn’t last forever.  It doesn’t define who we are.

And, chances are, most of us have already survived, or are currently surviving, something far worse than embarrassment in a social situation:  recovering from a serious accident, coping with a deadly illness, losing a loved one suddenly and unexpectedly, facing the break up of a long-term relationship, losing nearly everything though a fire or a flood or a storm.

The list of life-shattering events that can and do happen over a lifetime goes on and on.

Yet, somehow we’re still here.  Somehow we’ve survived.  We are always stronger than we think we are.  And remembering that does define who we are.

Viewed against the backdrop of all the major catastrophes we’ve already survived, one public speaking gig or one social situation is just a tiny dot.  Even the worst possible outcome we could possibly imagine is small potatoes compared to everything we’ve already been through.

So the next time you feel butterflies flitting around in your tummy, visualize the worst case scenario and send them packing!  Once we realize we can (and probably already have) survived the worst that can possibly happen, there’s nothing left to fear.


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What are you most afraid of when it comes to public speaking or communication?  What embarrassments have you survived? Share your stories in the comments section below.

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