These days, it’s easy to feel a little, uh, negative about the future. If you’ve caught yourself thinking “we’ll never get back to normal life again,” or “virtual learning is going to be a disaster,” on an almost daily basis, you’re definitely not alone. Many of us are having these kinds of thoughts, which psychologists refer to as fortune telling. And spoiler: It’s not productive.
What is fortune telling?
Fortune telling is a thought distortion where you predict the worst will happen, even if you have little to no evidence to back it up, says Casey O’Brien Martin, a licensed mental health counselor and the founder of Whole Child Counseling. “It can almost serve as a protective response in some way. If you already decide the worst possible thing will happen, then you won’t be disappointed or let down,” she explains. With that in mind, it makes total sense why a lot of us are doing a lot of fortune telling lately—we’ve already experienced a ton of disappointment this year.
If you find yourself thinking this way once in a while, you’re in the clear. “It really only becomes a problem when it is frequent and keeps us from engaging in life, applying for that job or even starting relationships because we assume the end is going to be bad anyway,” says Micheline Maalouf, a licensed mental health counselor, popular TikTok therapist and the founder of Serein Counseling. That’s when fortune telling becomes a toxic habit.
How do you break the habit?
Unfortunately, it’s not as simple as just deciding to think more positively. “When fortune telling is frequent it can be due to a variety of factors including our biological makeup, the way we grew up, adversities we’ve had to face, coping skills that were taught to us and of course underlying mental health conditions [like anxiety and depression],” Maalouf says. In other words, it’s going to take some work to break this habit. Here, Martin and Maalouf share five tips to help you manage it.
1. Use metacognition
Metacognition, or thinking about thinking, involves being aware of and understanding your own thoughts. In this case, that means catching yourself when you’re having a fortune telling thought and reminding yourself that not all of your thoughts are true or accurate, says Martin.
2. Try ‘putting your thoughts on trial’
This is a Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, technique that Maalouf uses with clients who are engaging in fortune telling. She recommends putting your thoughts on trial by asking questions like “What evidence do I have to support this thought?” “What evidence do I have against this thought?” and “Are there any other possible outcomes for this situation/thought?” You can also try listing 3-5 possible positive outcomes during this process, she says.
3. Keep a thought journal
There might be a pattern to your fortune telling thoughts that you’re not aware of, Maalouf says. By keeping a journal and recording when the thoughts happen and what they’re about, you might notice that you need to focus on a particular area of your life. For example, are you always thinking the worst when it comes to your impending performance review at work? That might be something to reflect on further.
4. Practice mindfulness
Whether it comes in the form of mediation, yoga, journaling or going for a walk in nature, mindfulness can help you detach from unhelpful fortune telling thoughts if you feel like you’re getting sucked in, says Martin. With practice, you’ll be able to just let thoughts pass without latching onto them or judging them, she adds.
5. Consider seeing a therapist who’s trained in CBT
If you can’t seem to get your thoughts in check on your own, seek out a therapist who has a background in CBT, says Martin. They’re trained in how to help you overcome thought distortions like fortune telling. Usually, that info will be readily available on a therapist’s website or their PsychologyToday profile.