We all wish – or, I will argue, we all think we wish – that we could escape our worries, stresses, anxieties and repetitive, annoying thought patterns. We all dream of a worry-free, stress-free and anxiety-free life.
The process goes something like this: we experience our worries (and stresses/anxieties, but I will just say “worries” for brevities sake) as valid, legitimate and justified. We find an obvious solution to our worries and direct our energies toward this potential resolution. When, and if, we manage to resolve the worrisome situation, we bask in relief. Unfortunately, this relief is temporary. Sometimes all too much so. In a flash, we are captured by worry again.
I find it curious that this cycle can repeat ad infinitum, and yet we still manage to convince ourselves that a life without worry is possible; that it’s juuuust over there, just over that next hill, just around the next bend…
In other words, we seem to genuinely take seriously the notion that the key to attaining a worry-free life is the resolution of any and all worrisome situations. I hate to be the bearer of bad news – actually, maybe I don’t – but, as far as I can tell, that’s just not the case. It’s a fantasy, albeit a compelling one.
Fortunately, it’s not all bad news: there is a path to reducing your worry dramatically. That path is not marked by the resolution of all potential worries (an impossible task), but by insight into the nature and construction of the phenomenon of worry itself.
The Worry Fantasy
By this point in our lives, we should be well aware that, once our current worries are adequately resolved, we will readily find new ones to replace them with.
And the second half of that sentence is key: “we” will “find” new ones to replace them with. This goes against the normal way of thinking. The unexamined, typical belief is that life will present us with new worries that we will have no choice but to accept. Like an unfavorable task given by an overbearing boss to a lowly employee, we dutifully, but reluctantly, accept our lot and drudge off, mumbling obscenities under our breath.
This is the sticking point. The primary hang-up. The misguided belief that gives this whole song and dance its legs.
At the end of the day, worries don’t come to us from “out there,” but are generated “in here”.
This can be illustrated with the simple and obvious point that what worries one person isn’t guaranteed to worry the next person. As such, you are the source, the progenitor, the author, the owner, the creator of your worries. You conjure them up. You reach out into the world and pull them back.
Let’s say, you’re worried about a deadline. But don’t you see that you just as easily could spend your time worrying a potential leak in the leak in your kitchen sink? Or your kid’s grades? Or UFO’s? And, of course, there are people very much consumed by their worries about those things. But you have chosen the approaching deadline as the focal point of your worried thoughts.
The point I am attempting to illustrate is that the world lies before us in unfathomable infinitude. And out of this vast, unending landscape we put our focus on a few salient items, most of which are very familiar to us by this point. And these items become the content of our worries.
There is no end point to this game. No final place of definite resolution. You meet this deadline only to be administered another. You quit your job only to worry about being unemployed. Your kid does well this quarter and then you “find” yourself worrying about their college applications.
There are two key takeaways here:
- There is no end to – no ending – your worries.
- You CHOOSE what to worry about.
This begs the obvious question: why? Why generate these worried thoughts? Why give them so much undue attention, time and energy when your attention, time and energy is so preciously limited?
Why We Worry
Apparently, those worries are doing something for us. A life form isn’t going to engage in a behavior that doesn’t do something for it it on some level. As far as I can tell, our worries serve three primary functions for us:
- They give us something to occupy ourselves with.
- They give us a good excuse (for anything).
- They reinforce our sense of self (i.e. they are a fundamental part of how we know ourselves).
I think number 1 & 2 are fairly self explanatory. In a moment of dullness and boredom we can conjure up a worry; and, if there’s something we don’t want to do, we can use our worry, whatever it is, as an excuse to not do it.
I’ll touch on number 3 in a bit more detail. Our ongoing, familiar worries, laden as they are with self-referential commentary, give us a continuous background narrative that reinforces our (constructed) sense of self. We are aware that if we were to drop the worry, we would be confronted with a disturbing question: who am I and what do I do now? Most of us would prefer to stay entrapped in worry than to come face-to-face with this mystery.
This gives rise to the following dilemma: on the one hand, the hand we reveal to both ourselves and the world, we claim that we want our worry to go away (and this claim is genuine enough), but on the other hand, the hand hidden behind our back, out of our own sight, we grasp the worry tightly, firmly invested in its never being resolved.
We’re holding our worry hostage while simultaneously pleading with it to set us free.
The ontology of worry – this notion we’ve been exploring that worry is constructed by us in order to give ourselves something to do and to generate a familiar and ongoing sense of self – is actually quite encouraging. If worry is something that we’re doing to ourselves, as opposed to something that’s being done to us, there is quite a bit we can do about it.
Here are three practices:
- Focus on your worry, name it to yourself, look at it as if from a distance and then, in a flash, drop it. Just let it go completely. With a snap of your fingers, you can allow your worry to disappear. Why can you allow it to disappear? Because it is a construct in your mind. Can you make the table in front of you disappear? Of course not. The point is that the table is a solid, external object, whereas the worry is an internal product of your thoughts.
What do you feel when you do this? Relief? Space? Freedom? Panic? Doubt? Worry that something isn’t right, that this isn’t allowed? All of these things? This practice is meant to help you see the ephemeral, transitory, non-substantiated, co-constructed quality of your worries. In any given moment, you can choose to focus on them, or you can choose to drop them completely.
- Invite a feeling of positivity and excitement to wash over you. The mind is programed to generate and focus on worries and problems, but you can exercise control over the mind. You can call forth positive thoughts and feelings in this very moment, no justification necessary. For 30 seconds, let yourself feel peace and joy. Let yourself feel supported by the world (the air you’re breathing, the ground you’re standing on, the friends and family that love you), as opposed to threatened by the world. Whenever you’re aware of being consumed by worry, balance it out with this intention to turn towards the positive (which is just as available to you in any moment as worry is).
- Ask yourself, if I my attention wasn’t focused on my worries right now, what would I do? Get curious about that answer. And if it presents itself to you, then do that thing. You don’t need to wait for your worries to go away before engaging with your life the way you want to.
- It goes without saying, I hope, that sometimes we do need to take our worries seriously and respond to them appropriately. I am no suggesting we should avoid them at all costs. What I am suggesting is that we don’t need to spend as much time preoccupied with worry as we do. Mark Twain’s infamous quote “I’ve lived a long and troubled life, most of it which didn’t happen,” needn’t become our reality as well.
Worry exists in the mind, it doesn’t exist in the world. And we have more influence over our minds than we realize. Once we identify an ongoing, neurotic worry that is coloring our lives with stress and anxiety, we can put it in its proper place. We can drop it, we can take space from it, we can investigate the deeper function that its serving for us, we can balance it out with a positive counter-thought, and we can take practical, result-oriented action if need be.
We won’t ever life a life without worry, per se, but we can live a life where worry plays only a very small and purely practical role.