This article is part of a series on types of negative thinking and their impact on self-esteem and relationships. The types of negative thinking are at the core of Cognitive/Behavioral Psychotherapy, and presented in “The Feeling Good Handbook” by Dr. David Burns.
Do you believe in Fortune Tellers? Do you pay money to get your palm read or your future predicted by the cards? You may not believe that others can do it, but you may believe in your own clairvoyant abilities.
If the imagined future event is negative, which it often is, we experience the rapid heartbeat, quickened breathing, and muscle tension, as if it was already happening. We experience the tragedy that hasn’t happened.
We may imagine future tragedies because we mistakenly feel that it will prepare us for the worst possibilities. It seems that we will fare better if we brace ourselves for the impact. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work.
Imagine that you’re waiting for the results of a biopsy. The mass could be cancer or a benign tumor. You find yourself imagining that the mass is cancer. You visualize hearing the bad news, going through chemotherapy, and perhaps even dying. You imagine the worst. Your muscles tense, your heart races and your breathing quickens. You feel fear and grief.
If you later receive news that the tumor was benign, you have experienced fear, grief and pain for nothing. How many times has this happened to you? How many of the negative events of your life never actually happened?
If you get the unfortunate news that the mass is cancer, you will have to deal with it. You will experience fear, grief and pain. It won’t be lessened by the fact that you imagined the worst before you heard. You won’t be any more prepared.
The Fortune Teller Error can hurt you in other ways. Imagining failure in school may keep you from applying. Imagining rejection at a party may keep you from attending. Imagining a negative response to a question may keep you from ever asking it.
Reminds me of a story. Kevin ran out of sugar, and decided to walk next door and borrow a cup from his neighbor, Joe. He grabbed an empty cup and headed out the door. He realized it was a little late, and wondered if Joe might be in bed. He then imagined that Joe might be upset with him for bothering him. He pictured Joe chastising him for being rude. He then remembered the times he had loaned Joe things, and felt anger that Joe could possibly refuse such a simple request as a cup of sugar. As he arrived at Joe’s house, the door opened. Joe smiled and said “Hi Kevin, how are you?” Kevin shouted back, “Just keep your stupid sugar!” and marched back home.
Watch out for the Fortune Teller Error. It may rob you of more than a simple cup of sugar.