In Part One of this article, we began to explore suspense: "a mixture of fear, delight, and confident hope." It's a thrill you can get from watching a movie, playing bingo, riding a rollercoaster, or going to a haunted house, and it's something that people seek out.
But when the unknown presents itself in the non-recreational moments of your life, you often just feel fear.
By examining what determines whether you will experience uncertainty as either suspenseful and enjoyable, or terrifying, we can identify ways you can convert the fear-inducing situations you encounter into thrills to be savored. In the last article, I left you with these examples to consider.
Going for a rollercoaster ride
Strapped to an instructor, about to skydive for the first time
An Olympian on a high-dive platform, about to go for gold
Attempting, with your extensive support crew, to be the first person to swim from Florida to Cuba without a shark cage
Aboard a runaway freight train in the mountains
About to be thrown from the roof of a skyscraper
Someone on a high-dive platform after losing a bet
Abandoned at sea by your charter boat while you are scuba diving
On a rollercoaster, your faith in the structural integrity of the ride can affect whether your experience is scary-fun or just scary, just like the long-distance swimmer’s support crew lets her focus on her goal and worry less about the danger.
Having the background conviction that you’re safe and that things will turn out okay is important for building and maintaining suspense. This is where the confident part of “confident hope” comes in.
However, sometimes you don’t have an external source of security and instead you need faith that you know what you’re doing. The high diver doesn’t have a support crew up there—she has confidence, borne of her own familiarity and practice, that she will not belly flop.
If she lost sight of her competence for some reason, she’d be plain old afraid, just like the person with no diving experience. That’s what happens when you “psych” yourself out: your confidence wanes, a situation’s risks become more prominent to you, and you transition from suspense into fear.
Therefore, when you feel as if you aren’t prepared for a distressing situation you’re facing, you need to actively remind yourself of your experience and competence. Let’s say you’re getting divorced and you’re worried that you won’t be able to make it on your own. You might not have prepared for this exact situation, but take a moment to reflect on the breakups you’ve survived.
From the first time it happened, perhaps when you were a teenager, to the last one, each of them was an opportunity to cope with romantic loss. Then there are the other losses you’ve experienced: deaths of loved ones, broken friendships, lost jobs, stolen bicycles.
This isn’t the first time you’ve been separated from something you care about. With each instance, you’ve gotten stronger and more capable, just as the high diver gradually learned to dive from greater heights.
What techniques have you used before to cope with loss? Did they work? What have you learned since then? What new strengths and resources do you have that you didn’t have then?
Remember (from Part One) how trusting filmmakers enables you to relax and entertain alternative explanations of the world? Well, the more you can relax into the knowledge that you can handle yourself, the more receptive and creative you’ll be in facing an uncertain future, finding meaning in it, and exploring new options. Identify your inner expert and ask for a consultation.
A common denominator in suspense- and terror-inducing situations is the possibility of a negative outcome; in terrifying situations, however, the odds are that it will be catastrophic.
The most likely outcome of a fall from a skyscraper is death, whereas when you’re strapped to your skydiving instructor and jumping from a plane, the most likely worst-case scenario is that you’ll trip when you come in for a landing. (They do carry a backup parachute, you know.)
Likewise, the seasoned high-diver’s primary concern (and source of suspense) is the possibility of a low score, not a bone-crushing belly flop.
Unfortunately, though, when an unexpected problem crops up your brain often disregards probabilities and instead worries about the absolute worst-case scenario, no matter what.
This is because the human mind is oriented toward short-term pleasure seeking and pain avoidance. It tends to keep a sharp lookout for all the ways things might turn out badly and then get stuck there, trying to figure out how to keep you out of trouble.
Of course, the more is at stake, the more attention your mind will give it. Therefore, you probably won’t give much thought now to the $10 bingo game you will play in six months, even though you might feel suspense when you’re finally playing it.
But the layoffs that you know are coming in six months, and whether you’ll be able to keep a roof over your head? Those, you’re more likely to worry about now.
Cultivating mindfulness in your life can help you keep your attention where it really ought to be most of the time: on what you’re experiencing right now, not ruminating on the many possible catastrophes that might (but probably won’t) ensue.
Mindfulness meditation practice helps you take your negative thoughts less as gospel, and accept them as just a natural cognitive phenomenon that’s no more or less significant than any other part of your experience. It helps you tame your catastrophizing mind (along with many other benefits), and when the prominence of those thoughts is taken down a notch, the emotional and physical components of your fear will follow suit.
Then, once you’re feeling a bit more grounded, think through your situation rationally: what’s the worst that can reasonably happen? Considering your experience with the thematically-related situations you identified in the confidence-building step (e.g., experiences of loss), how many times did you face one that truly turned out to be the end of the world for you?
Whatever the outcome of that bingo game six months from now, it won’t be very significant in the long run, and the situation looming large for you right now will naturally shrink with distance in the rearview mirror. Sure, it could alter the course of your life—for better or worse—but whatever happens, you’ll relate and respond to it in that present moment, when you arrive there.
What you can do right now is be present with, and respond rationally and wisely to, your current situation. Do that, and you’ll have developed more competence that you can draw upon later, no matter what happens.
Creating a near future
Another characteristic of suspenseful situations is that they tend to be time-limited and goal-oriented (enjoy the ride, earn a good score, etc.). Terrifying situations like being thrown off the roof of a building, riding a runaway freight train, and bobbing in the open ocean are not goal-oriented.
Furthermore, while they are time-limited, it’s in a much different way: you might well be headed into oblivion, so it’s difficult to conceptualize them as intermediate steps in the process of your life. Looking into the void isn’t very delightful or hopeful.
The solution here is to actively create a future, thereby establishing your current situation as a step in a process and not an endpoint. You’ve already considered how you have incrementally developed competence by facing challenges in the past. Now, apply the same strategy for the future by identifying some next incremental steps.
They don’t necessarily need to relate to the uncertainty you're facing; they can just replicate techniques you’ve used in the past to cope with anxiety-provoking situations in healthy ways.
Be careful not to look too far ahead at first. Remember, suspense usually stems from your concern about what's going to happen in the immediate future, not 10 years from now.
Keeping your attention on the near term can also have the fringe benefit of helping to keep you from catastrophizing. When you're in a state of uncertainty the distant future can look a lot like the void, and provide fertile ground for absolute worst-case scenarios to predominate.
Just keep it simple. For example, if you’re facing divorce, wouldn’t this be a good time to connect with those friends that you’ve been meaning to spend more time with? Can you get out of the house and engage in some physical activity today? What about finally checking that household project off the to-do list?
Setting some straightforward, relatively easy-to-achieve short-term goals of any kind will help you feel a sense of anticipation, and then accomplishment and progress, which will further boost your confidence and improve your mood. Plus, they will remind you that you are more than the crisis you are facing.
Acting on purpose
I’ve saved perhaps the most obvious difference between fear- and suspense-inducing situations for last: it’s that you’ve chosen to engage in the latter. Deciding to face a difficulty has an entirely different emotional flavor than having one suddenly foisted upon you.
Feeling helpless and out of control doesn’t inspire feelings of delight or hope, so when a scary unknown comes to you it’s especially important to start establishing some agency in the situation.
Proceed as if this development were part of your plan all along. This isn't really pretending, because if you’ve started doing the other steps we've discussed, then you’re already taking ownership of it.
You’ve reminded yourself that you’re more capable than you may have thought and that the realistic worst-case scenario probably isn’t that bad. You’ve also started to find opportunities to take charge of your future by setting short-term objectives.
If you’ve been laid off, just starting a search for a new job opportunity can expose you to career ideas, possible relocations, and new possibilities for your life that may not have occurred to you before. (Importantly, they might never have occurred to you, but for this scary situation.)
Your efforts to tend carefully to the near future will naturally lead to the creation of a longer-term future that is aligned with your core self. That’s how you write the next chapter in your life narrative, and it can be fun and exciting.
You may not like your current situation, but at least you’re in the driver’s seat now, which feels a lot better than riding shotgun with a driver who’s just had a heart attack.
Remember that you’re the protagonist
In Part One, I discussed Ocean's Eleven and how we're sometimes able to root for the criminals in a film by seeing them in a different context: the world the filmmaker has created. You temporarily let go of negative judgments and let the filmmaker show you which character should be the object of your sympathies.
In real life, it’s you. Not that you’re the only one who matters, of course.
Just as in a film, you have your fellow protagonists around you and, although you are individual people (and are each the protagonists of your own lives), you share the same general outlook and are on the same side in your struggle against opposing forces. You probably feel aligned with, and compassion for, many people whom you don’t even know, too.
My point here, though, is that you are always at the center of the universe when it comes to your life experience: you’re the one experiencing things, it’s your mind that makes sense of them, and you choose how to respond.
Yet, sometimes people forget their protagonist role when something throws them for a loop. Instead of the star, you might begin to feel like an extra: insignificant, easily replaceable, and powerless to make changes to your role.
You can even start to feel like you’re the antagonist of your life story and that you’re getting what you deserve. Then, when you face a frighteningly uncertain situation, you’re less likely to feel confident hope that things will work out for you . . . because they aren’t supposed to work out for the bad guy, right?
So, please, remember that your story is your story, and no one deserves its spotlight—and to be the object of your compassion—more than you. Inside, you already know this: the fact that you’re anxious about how an uncertain situation will turn out for you is an indication that you care about yourself.
If you start to feel like the bad guy, remember that no matter what you’ve done wrong in the past, even the most dysfunctional behavior is, at its core, a response to the frustration of a need, and a product of the fundamental human desire to be safe, comfortable, and happy.
To be a protagonist, you don’t need to be flawless. A flawless protagonist isn’t even very interesting. It’s the quirks and flaws that bring one to life, and you’re no different.
Accept the shortcomings you have now (which doesn’t mean you can’t work on them), and also recognize all of your positive qualities. Appreciate yourself as a whole person.
Give yourself at least as much benefit of the doubt as you do Danny Ocean’s band of thieves, and you might feel more worthy of the delight and hope you’re able to find.
Do you have any other ways to make the frightening, uncertain situations of your life more positive, or even enjoyable? Please let me know in the comments!