What’s your Plan Z?

I sat down at my desk, intent on writing down three things I was grateful for. Instead, in the throes of debilitating fatigue and overwhelming stress, I listed out everything I hated about my life. And I felt so much better.

Catharsis comes from the ancient Greek word…which literally translated means ‘to pass a hard stool’

Tim Sandlin

Everyone has their Plan A. This is the scenario in which everything goes right. You have perfect health, a high-paying and rewarding career, a loving family, and time to pursue your hobbies. Perhaps your novel gets published, you win the lottery, or you spend summers lounging in Mykonos. This is the dream.

Most people also have a Plan B. This is the contingency scenario. This is the acceptable, but not magnificent alternative to the grandiose glory of Plan A. You might suffer an acute illness, need to take up a second job to pay rent, or stitch up a lopsided dress in your space time. Sometime good enough is, well, good enough.

But what about your Plan Z? This is the absolute worst case scenario. Your lowest low, the end of the road, and the pit of despair. When everything that could go wrong has. This is the point at which you, my friend, are the epitome of failure.

Most us of don’t like thinking beyond Plan A. Considering Plan B is discouraging enough, but Plan Z feels like an entirely different beast. It’s the deep, dark woods and the bottom of the ocean. It feels far to scary to go through, even in our imagination.

But, someday, we may not have a choice.

At age 26, my Plan A began slipping through my fingers like sand due to a mysterious chronic illness. By age 28, Plan Z had shown up at my doorstep, uninvited, and self-executed. I was wholly unprepared. Thus, it took me years to accept the seemingly horrendous life that was unfolding before me.

Always plan for the fact that no plan ever goes according to plan.

Simon Sinek

When I spilled out all the terrible things about my current situation, it felt empowering. Writing down every awful, terrible detail about my experience helped strip the situation of its power. The sense of terror and lack of control slipped away when I realized I was living my “worst nightmare”, yet I was somehow still relatively okay.

I’m reaching the age where friends have begun fretting about getting older. Those first grey hairs, the burgeoning back pain, and the mad dash to save for retirement feel daunting. When they worry aloud, I suggest they supplement their Plans A and B with a Plan Z. Author Oliver Burkeman would agree, suggesting that “Happiness reached via positive thinking can be fleeting and brittle, negative visualization generates a vastly more dependable calm.”

Anticipating the worst case scenario not only helps you prepare for the unexpected, but it also minimizes the emotional toll. We, as humans, have a tendency to over-exaggerate things in our minds. Making peace with The Worst Possible Outcome takes the sting out of nearly every situation. If we can survive the mental exercise of exploring Plan Z, we can survive anything.

For me, Plan Z entails the following:

  • A sense of disconnection from myself, as if in a daze or drugged
  • My parents die, my partner leaves me, and loneliness that follows is crushing
  • There’s no money in my bank account, and I’m unable to hold a job or support myself
  • I’m bedridden and too fatigued to engage in things I enjoy, such as hobbies and visiting friends
  • I share a raggedy studio apartment with two strangers I met on Craigslist because it’s all I can afford
  • I look like a slob, wearing the same pair of ripped jeans and stained sweatshirt everyday, and rarely brushing my hair
  • I skip most meals because I don’t have the money or energy to prepare or eat food
  • I have a wide constellation of symptoms, but no clear pattern and no diagnoses so doctors think I’m crazy
  • I’ve lost all of my possessions and don’t own much more than the clothes on my back
  • I’m stuck forever living in the boring sage-beige Sonoran Desert

I’ve already experienced over half of the above. It has been miserable, but I’ve overcome it. Or at least come to accept it. Once I write it all down, my Plan Z doesn’t sound that bad. Is it what I want? Of course not. Will I do everything in my power to avoid it? You bet. Is it likely to happen? The improbable is always possible.

Think about your Plan Z for a moment. What would your life look like if everything that could go wrong did go wrong? Write it down, capturing it’s emotional weight–the fear, the shame, and the loneliness. Read it back and then say to yourself, “This will probably never happen. But even if it does, I’ll be okay.” It may suck, but you will survive.

One thing that makes it possible to be an optimist, is if you have a contingency plan for when all hell breaks loose. There are a lot of things I don’t worry about, because I have a plan in place if they do.

Randy Pausch

I suspect most of us have lived in cheap apartments, stretched that last $10 over a week, juggled several low-end jobs, been publicly humiliated, and felt life a complete failure at life. We could do it all again, if we had to. It wouldn’t kill us.

Ten years ago, I had never consider my Plan Z. The worst case scenario never happens, until it does.

For those fortunate to be consistently navigating through Plan A and (occasionally) Plan B, you may consider mentally exploring what life might look like were everything to go wrong.

In facing my my Plan Z, I gained a new level of personal strength, resilience, and empathy for others who are struggling. It was the worst thing ever—and also, in a twisted way, the best thing ever.

In my youth, I worried obsessively over trivialities. I no longer experience anxiety. The things I can control, I manage well. Everything else is fielded as it comes into view, based on my established contingency plans.

I’ve been humbled by the fact that nothing in life is certain or permanent. Anything could happen. An unexpected illness, a bad business decision, a freak accident, or being blindsided by a breakup can turn our lives upside down.

However, once we make peace with the notion that things don’t always go as planned, we can find the beauty and the bravery in the alternatives–Plans B though Z aren’t quite as bad as we might imagine. We just need to start by imagining them before they sneak up on us.

You can find more from me on my personal blog: https://existentialergonomics.com/

29 thoughts on “What’s your Plan Z?

  1. You have touched on an essential feature of understanding life, Esoterica. The question of how one lives with the possibility of suffering has been addressed by the Stoics, Buddhists, and Socrates, as well as in “The Myth of Sisyphus.” We have many sources of guidance, and your experienced reminder that the sun doesn’t always shine. Thanks.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you, Dr. Stein. I hadn’t consider the age-old wisdom of the Stoics, Buddhists, and Greek philosophers when writing this, but you’re absolutely right. I think sometimes we’re able to learn from those teaching, whereas other times we may need to have the sun duck out to realize it can happen.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You are right. No one thinks it will happen to them, especially the young. Death, in particular, even though Death has a perfect record.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. You’re speaking to me with all of this, Erin…especially this thought, pervasive throughout, but what a great “closer”: …”once we make peace with the notion that things don’t always go as planned, we can find the beauty and the bravery in the alternatives”. Oh my, yes. I realized as a kid I played ‘worst case scenario’ in my head to bolster my courage when I had very little control. While I would give anything to whisk away all that you’ve endured, I’m continually amazed by your strength and resolve. Cheers…and of course hugs 🥰…to you for all of that and for sharing your wisdom. xo! 💗💗💗

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Vicki, I can only imagine how useful the ‘worst case scenario’ thinking could have been in your sometimes unpredictable childhood. Though it makes me a bit sad that you had to navigate the uncertainty at such a young age, I love that you discovered this little trick and thrive. Hugs to you, too, my dear friend!! 🥰💗

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Life lately for me has been a bit ‘Plan Z’ and it’s hard to sometimes acknowledge all the things I dislike but the cathartic nature of naming them can be a way to lessen their hold/power. I have a poem I wrote that will be shared on May 3rd that actually seems to speak to this a bit too — this has obviously been on my mind! Thanks for sharing all this — I’m sending you all the best!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Molly, I agree about the difficulty in acknowledging the hard things, as well as the relief that comes from naming them. Thanks for mentioning your upcoming poem — I’m looking forward to checking it out! All the best to you, as well!


  4. My quintessential Plan Z Esoterica in already in place, will last forever, and has been paid-in-full . . . it will begin the moment I leave this planet. Hope to see you there.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Great read. My plan z is my husband died and some my friends try to torture me with positive thinking, pleas for gratitude, and judgement on my grief. Then they go back to their husbands. Read the stoics, sounds like a good for for you. My best regards.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. “We, as humans, have a tendency to over-exaggerate things in our minds.” I can attest to that statement! I too have filed away a Plan, although perhaps not quite a Z-level, maybe more of an M-level 😉 While I think it’s unhealthy to dwell in that level on a regular basis I also don’t think it’s realistic to always assume Plan B is the lowest anyone could possibly go. Our world is such a mix of those who have their full strategies in place and those who cannot, or maybe will not see anything less than the Plan A. I never want to be that shocked by how my life could turn in such a short time. Hope is uplifting…resiliency is necessary.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You make such a great point, Deb. There’s a spectrum between “life is perfect” to “like sucks” and it’s not healthy to get locked into either extreme. I think it’s best to feel comfortable sliding up and down, exploring the possibilities without becoming obsessive about any of them… just gaining some awareness. “I never want to be that shocked.” That really resonates with me… I was so shocked when I became ill that denial was the only response I could conjure up, a resounding YES to “hope is uplifting…resiliency is necessary”. We need both, we really do. ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  7. What a powerful perspective and lesson, Erin! As I read, it did make me think of what got me through the loss of my marriage and breakdown of my business and that was the Buddhist wisdom of leaning in. It was in embracing the suckage and all the feelings that came with it that made me realize that I could handle it – and whatever the future brings. You have wrapped all that wisdom into one wonderful post that inspires and brings courage. Thank you!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for you comment, Wynne! So many people here have shared their hearts so openly that I actually thought about your experience while writing this. I appreciate the Buddhist angle of leaning in to the suckage and embracing all the aversive feelings that come with it. It still amazes me how simply sitting with our negative emotions is often enough to effectively scatter our fears and worries to the wind and find peace with whatever we may be faced with. ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Erin, what a brave and powerful message to share with us. Being able to be brutally honest with ourselves is challenging and I’m not sure many would be willing or able to do that. I also think that there will be some who are happy to catastrophise and will wallow in how bad things are, how much worse it could be and just give up.

    To be able to accept the worst case scenario or the fact that, as much as we don’t want to go there, that Plan Z does sometimes happen or could become inevitable. You’ve demonstrated resilience in not letting this stop you (I was going to say not letting it get you down, but from experience that does happen). You acknowledge the potential and have determined its not going to define you, that you will still look for opportunities to make something out of the situation.

    You are an inspiration and an example for others

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Brenda! You make a such great point about finding that space where we can acknowledge the possibility of something undesirable happening without wallowing in self-pity, but instead looking for a new path forward. I know from experience that it’s a challenge, but I suspect that when I look back at my life I will be glad that I tried (even if I fail), rather than give up. ❤️

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Definitely Erin. It can feel bleak when you’re down there, but I think there’s a difference between accepting the reality of what life is/could be like and learning to live with it, and wallowing in self pity. To me, self pity just makes everything so much worse. But at the same time it’s not easy when people don’t believe or support you. Fortunately I’ve had some very good friends and my GP believed in me

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I believe we all have our Plan Z’s occurring at some points in our lives. At least I know I have. It think living through the shut down in California gave me a new attitude about living in the beige Sonoran desert. It’s wide open spaces and lovely walks to enjoy each day. That’s my peaceful moment each day. I’m glad you shared everything that you’re going through.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re absolutely right, E.A. Life is full of surprises–some good, and others not so much. You make a great point about how sometimes those less-than-perfect experience offer a new perspective, and we can recognize things aren’t so bad after all.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. “Writing down every awful, terrible detail about my experience helped strip the situation of its power.”

    This really resonated with me with Erin. While I do believe in positive thinking, I also think it’s important to be pragmatic and to anticipate the worst case scenario. And it’s powerful how you do that and in doing so, strip the fear and anxiety it can cause you. That is a very healthy way to face uncertainty!

    And I had quite the chuckle about the origin of word catharsis. It just makes so much sense when you think about it – that instantaneous feeling of relief. 😆🤣

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely agree, Ab! In a past life, I was 100% focused on positive outcomes and was duly unprepared when faced with adversity, so I do think the ability to at least consider those less-than-desirable outcomes is important.

      I’m glad the origin of word catharsis gave you a good laugh — I enjoyed that too much not to share! 🤣

      Liked by 1 person

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