There’s a lot of “universal” advice out there. The always-present everyone says don’t smoke, exercise more, eat your fruits and vegetables.
One piece of universal advice is to stop worrying, or at least reduce the level of worry in your life. After all, we have plenty to worry about—Money, our children, our parents, our spouse’s happiness, a long list of problems at work, even the health of our pets.
Worrying, we are told, adds stress to our lives and focuses on the negative. It keeps us awake at night, gives us ulcers and is bad for the economy.
I think that’s all a bunch of baloney.
Worrying is natural. In moderation, worrying is good. There’s something wrong with people who don’t worry enough!
In the big scheme of things, there are a few people who worry too much (some tiny percentage of the population). They have intriguing phobias that become fodder for news stories. This condition (worrying too much) is so rare that most people only learn about it from afternoon TV junk-talk shows.
There is much more of a problem with people who don’t worry enough. Think about this. What’s your image of someone who doesn’t worry about what other people think, doesn’t worry about social norms, doesn’t worry about paying his bills or insuring his car, doesn’t worry about keeping himself clean or being responsible for his own actions? The picture in my mind is a young person who is completely irresponsible, who has made a mess of his life and others and who has left it up to other people to fix his messes.
A handful of these people make it to adulthood without changing their ways. Most, however, go through a long painful process of paying their debts, raising their children, having to work hard and becoming responsible adults. At which point they find themselves worrying a normal amount—just like the rest of us.
As with any other behavior, there is a great benefit to be gained by:
1) Examining the behavior
2) Learning to control the behavior
3) Focusing the behavior
4) And integrating the behavior into our overall understanding of ourselves.
Thus, the behavior–worrying–becomes one more important piece of our success.
Let’s look at three aspects of worrying
— What is worry?
— How much worrying is right?
— How can we focus our worry in order to reap its benefits?
By “worrying” we generally mean that we are thinking about something; the something is usually a problem that needs to be solved (e.g., “Where will be get the money to . . .”) or a concern about future events (e.g., the health of a loved one); our mind wanders back to the something whenever it has the opportunity; and we find ourselves thinking about the something when we don’t want to.
Thus we find ourselves worrying while we try to sleep or while we’re driving, but not when we’re engaged in a project that requires our full attention. For example, work keeps our mind off our troubles.
Interestingly, most people “try not to worry.” In practice this means we try to not think about our problems. But our unconscious mind knows that the problem needs to be addressed. So whenever our mind isn’t busy with something else, the thing we should be thinking about pops up to get its share of attention.
What are you trying to avoid addressing in your life? Why is it that humans think some problems will go away if you ignore them?
Don’t think about the roof and it won’t leak. Don’t think about your teenager’s risky behavior and it will stop. Don’t think about your relationship problems and they’ll all smooth out.
Baloney! You know it’s not true.
We have problems we want to avoid: We know we should think about them but we don’t want to. One way that we avoid thinking about problems we don’t want to think about “right now” is to spend time on a hobby or on busy work.
Have you ever noticed that our hobbies tend to be rather technical and detailed? Whether it’s carving or needlework or gardening or making things or whatever. Our hobbies fill our minds and are distractions. This is good—in fact it’s extremely good for our mental health—unless we’re using it to avoid thinking about a problem that needs to be addressed.
Let’s face it, we have problems we embrace and we have problems we avoid. Those we embrace are labeled “projects” and those we avoid are labeled “worry.” The only substantive difference is whether we’re ready to address the problem.
Now we know what worry is. How much worrying is the right amount? That’s difficult to quantify. I believe we need to think about the problems in our lives enough so that we understand them. Notice I didn’t say that we need to “solve” the problems. If a loved one is gravely sick, there’s little most of us can do to “fix the problem.” We’re sad, perhaps depressed, maybe scared. We have a flood of conflicting emotions that we “don’t have time for” or otherwise wish to avoid.
In such a circumstance, we need to force ourselves to sit down and think about what’s going on. Let the emotions flood in; become overwhelmed; have a good cry; say a prayer; and then go back to our routine for awhile.
It may be necessary to do this every day for some time. We need to let ourselves feel the feelings we’ve been trying to avoid. We need to let all the aspects of this experience come out. It’s difficult and physically draining. But you need to let yourself experience what’s going on.
Some problems you can solve, but right now you don’t see the solution. For example, financial problems. Too many bills, or not enough income, or an unexpected expense. It’s all too overwhelming, so we set it aside. Intellectually, we know the problem will just get worse. But it’s “just too much” to think about right now.
The answer, of course, is to consider all the pieces of this problem: Your income, your regular bills, your credit, possible sources of loans or other income, payment plans, and so forth. This is definitely a problem that can be solved. It requires a lot of thought; it requires a plan of action; it requires some change in behavior; and it requires asking others for help.
These are just a few examples. In each case the amount of “worry” (thinking about the problem) required is the same. You need to think about it enough to understand the problem.
Oddly enough, most of us spend more emotional energy avoiding our problems than we would spend understanding them if we tried.
You can reduce the amount of “worry” in your life by taking time to relax and simply reflect on what’s going on. If you take time every day to sit down and relax and focus on yourself, you will find these problems a lot less overwhelming.
I try to sit down every day and reflect on four aspects of my life:
– Myself as an individual
– Myself as a father
– Myself as a friend
– Myself as a businessman.
I rarely make lists of what needs to be done or what problems need to be addressed. I simply think about what’s going on and what I need to do today. If there’s a problem in one of these areas, or with something else, I let my mind consider it. I don’t look for solutions or answers. I do try to consider all aspects of the problem. The goal is to understand everything about the problem. When I think I really understand the problem, then it becomes clearer what I need to do.
Worry brings benefits. That sounds odd to us. Let me rephrase it: Spending time thinking about problems brings good things into our lives.
There are two types of “focusing” on problems. The first is to open your mind and let the problems flood in. Perhaps focus is the wrong term. This is more like out-of-focus. Sit down with a pencil and paper and relax. Take a few deep breaths and try to clear your mind. Think about nothing. Focus on the way your breath feels moving in and out.
If you have things to worry about, they will interrupt your relaxation. As a “worry” presents itself, write down a brief note (not a long paragraph). For example, you might write
– College Savings
– Business partner
– Ad revenues
Don’t pass judgment, don’t try to solve the problem, don’t get into details. Just list your worries. Set yourself a time a do this listing for ten or fifteen minutes each day for a week. I guarantee that by day four you will be a lot less worried at night or when you’re concentrating on something else during the day. Why? Because your mind has been allowed to spend some time on the things it knows you should be thinking about!
The next step is to focus more clearly on your problems. For the next several days spend your 10-15 minutes sitting comfortably and “organizing” your problems. You may want to sort the list into categories such a family, finances, employees, etc.
Then spend a little time writing a bit of detail about each concern. For example:
I’m worried about college savings for my kids because I’m starting late. I wonder what college will really cost. What’s my goal? How do I get started? Who can help me? I need to talk to my spouse about this.
Set yourself a strict limit on this activity. No more than 30 minutes a day! You’ll be amazed! It will give you energy. Worry will stop draining your energy. And as you focus on the problem you will naturally break it down into smaller pieces that are much more manageable.
This, in turn, will lead to taking actions that address the problem. In other words, you’ll be working on a solution! What you’ve done is to stop spending your energy trying not to worry. Instead, you are spending a limited amount of energy focusing on issues that need some attention.
Instead of letting “worry” have an unscheduled, unlimited amount of your time, you have allowed a specific amount of time to be used improving your life!
Again, I guarantee that you will see a dramatic reduction in the amount of time spent on unscheduled worry during the day (and night). Your mind knows that you need to spend time on these activities. When you allot this time, your mind is more relaxed and it doesn’t need to force these thoughts upon you.
And, even better, when such thoughts pop into your mind now, they will be productive and bring solutions. The process of focusing on a problem for a specific period and then setting it aside has tremendous power. It organizes your unconscious mind, which works on possible solutions while you’re doing other things. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the solutions come forth into your conscious mind.
Problems never solve themselves: You need to worry in a healthy way and you will find a solution. Just as we have to focus on our happiness and our family and our health, we also need to focus on our problems.
You will never be without problems. But you can be without excessive, unnecessary worry. Allow yourself time to work on your problems and you’ll have a much more restful mind throughout the day. Because you’re worrying enough—and not too much.
|“Do not anticipate trouble,
or worry about what may never happen.”
— Benjamin Franklin