Imagine having exactly the relationship you want. Imagine feeling free in your body. Imagine having plenty of money. Imagine living in your dream house in the city, mountains, or beach. Imagine being fulfilled in your career or parenting. Then, imagine what could happen next.
“But what if she/he/they leaves me,” or, “My body won’t feel this good for long,” or, “The stock market or housing market could crash at any time and I’m unprepared,” or, “I wonder when the next hurricane will hit,” or, “What if I get hit by a car?’” are just some of the things you might imagine if your tendency is to anticipate loss.
The first time we get that phone call in the middle of the night that announces something terrible has happened, we get wired to go into high-alert-fight-or-flight whenever the phone rings at an odd hour. This kind of wiring due to shock and trauma can set up the tendency to anticipate loss whenever we dare to be happy.
This tendency can also develop through habits we inherit from our families and cultures, like tossing spilled salt over our shoulder into the face of the devil who lurks there, or using amulets to ward off the evil eye, or downplaying the good so that we don’t tempt fate to smack us. All of these stem from fear and set us up to focus on what could go wrong, or what’s missing, instead of what’s great right now.
When I was sixteen, I sang “When I Fall in Love,” for my voice teacher. I’d practiced all week. At the end, she said I sang beautifully, one difficult phrase in particular. I replied that I hadn’t hit the high note well. She said, “If you spend your life focusing on the one note you hit wrong instead of the phrase you sang well, you’ll never be happy.”
I’m still learning how to let the way I do something be good enough as it is. How to stay upright in the awkward pose of imperfection. How to be happy without waiting for the other shoe to drop, without waiting for disaster to jump and mug me around the next dark corner of the unknown.
I used to say that I was wired for yearning, that it was my homeostasis. Yearning was where my poems came from. Yearning made me work hard to improve in everything I do. When I got what I wanted, my mind would quickly turn to what was still missing or how I could lose the thing I now had and I would quickly be back to yearning again.
But anticipating loss robs me of the enjoyment of what I have and doesn’t mitigate the pain when loss actually comes. I end up staying braced for the next onslaught instead of being relaxed and able to enjoy the good that is here now. I’ve also found that if I’m enjoying my life more when times are good, I have more resilience when the inevitable loss happens because I’ve built up my reserves by allowing pleasure to sink in.
How delicious the chocolate bar found only at the shop in Brooklyn I visit twice a year. How wonderful to savor it, let it melt in my mouth instead of chewing and swallowing before the complexities of the cacao have fully revealed themselves. How satiating it becomes to eat a square each day in this way, making it last, instead of gobbling it up and wishing I had bought more bars.
When my partner’s body is wrapped around mine in the morning in that half-asleep swoony state where all I feel is warmth, soft skin, sheets, his still weight nestled perfectly into mine, a deep sigh of pleasure in my bones, it usually takes about 20 seconds for my mind to jump to what time we have to get up, the dog, breakfast, whether or not I’m in pain, if he’ll leave me. It takes willpower to bring my mind back to my peaceful body, to notice and let the pleasure sink in. With daily practice, the amount of time this peace continues into my day after I get out of bed is getting longer.
My mind prefers to be out in front of my body scanning for danger, like an anxious dog pulling on a leash. But one thing I know now is that my body knows. It feels out situations quicker than my mind can. The more I show the anxious dog of my mind who’s boss by noticing what’s happening in my body instead of being the prey of my racing thoughts, the quicker I can discern what I want to do.
The next time you’re anticipating loss or anxious about a decision, bring your mind back to your body. Feel your feet on the floor and connect to your breath. Bring your attention to a place in your body that feels good right now, even if it’s the tip of your nose. Let that good feeling spread through the rest of your body as you pause and breathe for a few minutes. End the exercise by thinking of three things you are grateful for right now. You can train your mind to come back to your body and train yourself to let your body inform your decisions. My tendency to anticipate loss lessened and my enjoyment of life increased when I took up this practice and yours can, too.