You may find my treatment of Whitney and Olga rather brutal, but I am not the evil Count. When you're chained to a Machine, though, waiting for God knows what, you have only two options. One is to let the albino dungeon-keeper of your subconscious kill the very thing you fear losing. The other is what brave Westley chose: Face and embrace your fear.
If you're repeatedly making dreadful mistakes and finding yourself in embarrassing snafus in an important area of life, push yourself to contemplate your worst-case scenario. I suggest doing this in the company of friends, family members, therapists, coaches, or all of the above. While you're gaping and reeling like a stunned mullet, your more objective advisers can help you do some contingency planning. That is what I did with Whitney.
"I know losing your job sounds like the end of the world," I told her. "But it wouldn't be. I know people who've started Internet-based companies for freelance work. They're making more money now than before they were laid off."
"Really?" Whitney blinked. Her grip on the BlackBerry loosened.
"And you'd finally have time to write your own book—haven't you always wanted that?"
"Yes, but how would I—"
"You'd figure it out," I said, hoping like hell I was right.
"You know, I would," said Whitney. She didn't sound totally convinced, not by any means. But she did sound a tiny bit hopeful. Her fear of the Machine was already waning—and that, I knew, would end her unconsciously driven train wrecks at the office. The more we examined ways Whitney could survive being unemployed, the less likely she was to cause that very fate.
Once Olga copped to her real fears, facing and embracing her worst-case scenario was even more liberating. She had felt stifled in her relationship, she realized. Her definition of "perfect wife" had meant someone who relinquished all personal interests except her husband. Although Olga loved Jack, that image of wifehood (hers, not his) was so noxious that subconsciously she knew she couldn't sustain it. Some part of her worried that it would eventually implode. So she'd begun doing things to end the marriage—and thus her terrible anticipation of its end.
As we discussed what Olga might do if she were single, she began redefining herself as an individual, not an appendage. With Jack's help, she bagged her old stereotype of married life and realized she was free to plot her own course. Embracing her worst-case scenario took the kill me now sign off her relationship, and her marriage-torpedoing behaviors stopped.
Since you, like Whitney and Olga, are probably of sound mind, any chronic blundering on your part is likely a counterphobic mechanism: a brave, unconscious, totally knob-brained attempt to end the torture of anticipating further torture. These days, more than ever, facing and embracing your worst-case scenarios, seeing them as problems to be solved rather than torments to suffer helplessly, can save you no end of self-sabotage.
Ironically, of course, this, too, is a counterphobic mechanism. The difference is that it's conscious, reasoned, and wise, rather than unconscious, irrational, and nuts. It may not be fun to contemplate everything that could go wrong in your life, especially in a time of massive economic upheaval and uncertainty. But by going straight into the fear, you can save yourself a crazy go-round with unconscious self-sabotage. You deserve better than that. You'll thank me. I swear.
Martha Beck is the author of six books. Her most recent is Steering by Starlight (Rodale).
From the July 2009 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine.
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