Just as There’s Good Stress,
So There’s Good Worry
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 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 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.
Worrying is a fundamentally good behavior.
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.” And the only substantive difference is whether we’re ready to address the problem.
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“One of the wisest men in Des Moines tells me that he has kept track of the 50 principal things he’s worried in the last ten years, jotting ’em down at the bottom of the pages in his diary in green ink. He finds that not one of them actually happened; but they bothered him just as much as if they had.”
— Harlan Miller