I was talking to someone about IB exams, and we both agreed that the absolute worst part of the exams is waiting for the exam results once the exams are over. One of the things that came up is that we’re often afraid of failing, but if we do actually fail a test/exam, we’re normally less upset about it than when we are waiting and wondering if we’re going to fail. Why is it so? Why is the sense of finality (even if it’s about something negative) so comforting?
I’ve been thinking about this all afternoon, because that’s pretty much what anxiety is, isn’t it? Worrying about things happening and making yourself even more upset than you would be if it did actually happen. And the worst part is, I can’t stop thinking about whatever it is I’m worried about, even when there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. In fact, I think I worry the most when there’s nothing I can do about the situation, which on one hand makes absolutely no sense (after all, why worry if the worrying can’t change things), but on the other hand, it makes perfect sense (feeling out of control in a stressful situation strikes me as a reason for being worried).
I think the reason why worrying is so much more painful than our worst fears being realised is that the finality brings us some kind of closure. Certainty is always comforting, if only because an unknown fills us with a need to change, to do something to alter the course of our future, while certainty gives us a starting point from which we can assess possible options. It’s hard to assess options and prepare for the worst case scenario before it’s happened because we’ll tell ourselves that we’re being pessimistic and ridiculous, but also because it feels too much like we’re getting ahead of ourselves and tackling a problem that hasn’t even happened. Waiting for something to happen just makes us feel really useless and not in control, because there is absolutely nothing we can do to resolve the uncertainty.
Humans like to control their destiny. Or rather, we like to feel we do. We get so much comfort from the illusion of being in control that we blame ourselves for things that aren’t our fault. It’s so much less painful to believe that we’ve done something to deserve the bad things that have happened to us than to believe that we actually can’t prevent them from happening and sometimes bad things just happen to people. Feeling like we’re lost or floundering when we’re just sitting around worrying while we wait for something to happen is therefore far more awful than actually having something bad happen and feeling like we can take steps to minimise the effect it has on our lives.