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The What If? Jar

Updated: Mar 13, 2020

At the beginning of the year, sat in a cafe celebrating the commencement of the new year with my friend Jenny, I listened closely as she recounted the findings from that year’s ‘Gratitude Jar’ – days later, she was still buzzing with happiness from it.

To explain – beginning the first week of January, Jenny, her husband and her children write about what they are grateful for each week on little pieces of paper, glitter-ing them up with stickers and embellishments if it takes their fancy, before popping them into a large kilner jar; otherwise known as the ‘Gratitude Jar’. The jar is then placed on top of the mantelpiece, ready to be brought down and filled up with more sparkly thank yous the following week.

Once the papers are in the jar, they remain there, and aren’t read again until the very last day of the year, when the family all sit round a table, empty the jar and take turns to read each grateful statement whilst adding their own end-of-year thoughts to it. This means that they generally end the year in a cloud of loveliness as they consider all the joyous happenings in their lives.

I thought this idea was soooooooo good, I wanted to try it immediately. But it also got me thinking.

What if we turn the idea on the ‘Gratitude Jar’ on its head? What if, instead of writing about our grateful-ness, we write instead about our worry-ness? If we did, would it help us to see exactly how much we worry, how often we worry, and more to the point, how much of that worry is entirely, one hundred per cent, categorically, unnecessary?

“I’ve had a lot of worries in my life, most of which never happened.” 

~ Mark Twain

One thing I’ve noticed from working with clients over many years is that we all suffer from ‘What If? Syndome’. Or to put it another way, we are all spectacularly good at catastrophizing. For whatever reason (no doubt dating back to our paleolithic days when we were forever being chased by cave lions), we humans are absolutely brilliant at projecting the most toe-curling, heart-stopping, hyperventilation-inducing fearful thoughts about the future. Even the most mundane of household items can fall victim to the seasoned catastrophizer:

‘Oh no, I left the iron/oven/gas stove on.’

‘Did I leave the iron/oven/gas stove on?’

‘I’m sure I left the iron/oven/gas stove on.’

‘Oh no, what if I did?’

‘Oh no, what if it’s on all day?!’

‘Oh no, what if the house sets on fire and burns down to the ground?!!’

‘Oh no, what if my house insurance isn’t up to date?!!!’

‘Oh no, what if we end up homeless?!!!’

‘Oh no, what if a meteorite lands on my head and it’s CURTAINS?!!!!’


This, ladies and gents, is what is known as catastrophizing – it starts out as one, small, fearful thought that before you know it has turned into an avalanche. Sound familiar?

How many of us instead have the following, somewhat cheerier conversation with ourselves:

‘Oh no, I left the iron/oven/gas stove on!’

‘No, it’s OK, I’m sure I didn’t leave it on. And even if I did, I’m sure everything will be absolutely fine.’

That’s not to say there aren’t a proportion of people who are more inclined to the sunnier side of thinking, and do genuinely only foresee positive outcomes, but in my experience, they are in the minority, going about their business while the rest of us are cowering under our bedspreads.

So, what can we do about this? Because catastrophization ain’t pretty, it ain’t helpful, and it causes all sorts of mayhem, and the nuts thing is, the majority of the time the things we are ‘What If-ing’ about will never happen. Nope, never, not in a month of Sundays, Mondays, Tuesdays or Wednesdays.

This is where the ‘What If ? Jar comes in.

On the first of January, get yourself a large-ish kilner jar, and from that week forth, fill it with bits of paper that detail the ‘What Ifs’ that plagued you that week; however big or small. Fold them up, chuck them in the jar, and then don’t read them for the whole year, however tempted you may be.

Then, just as my friend Jenny and her family do, take out the jar on a wintry late December evening and see, on a scale of 1-10, how many of the things you ‘What If-ed’ about actually happened?

My guess? Very, very VERY few.


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