We know that worrying doesn't help, but that never seems to stop us.
You know how it goes: something happens (your kids are on their iPhones too much) and you tell yourself a story (this is going to be a problem) and then you feel afraid for the future. You go into fear. You play out the possibilities and by the time you are done you have become the creator of an elaborate story about how their lives are going to be ruined because of the iPhone. We get sucked into the story that our imagination has created and we believe it to be true rather than what it is…just a story based on a single thought that might not even be true (this is going to be a problem).
“Worry is a misuse of the imagination.” ~ Dan Zadra
Worry is an adaptive survival mechanism that's based on keeping us and our loved ones alive. Our imaginations project into the future and anticipate all of the possible dangers and then our brain does what it can to avoid or remove those possibilities. It serves us well if we are in a dangerous situation. And worry can be a catalyst to solve problems for sure! But it can go awry and we can form the habit of worrying and even become addicted to worrying.
Perhaps that we worry isn’t the problem, it’s how we worry.
I think we are “incomplete worriers.” Most of us stop worrying too early and sort of get stuck. We never bring the situation into our full consciousness so we're run by unconscious and irrational fears.
We worry effectively when we allow ourselves to worry long enough to go through the fear and through the worry and into confidence. Yes, you read that right, I said we need to worry longer.
We need to let our worry to play out fully.
Let’s take an example for a parent of a boy who is entering high school this year. Mom is afraid he will be exposed to drugs and give into the peer pressure, do drugs, get addicted and become a pot-head and never leave her basement.
Most likely she'll stop there and keep playing that worry tape – forming a groove in her brain by going over the same thoughts repeatedly – and this is what forms a worry habit.
She's uncomfortable sitting in this fear so she begins to think about how she can control her outside circumstances to solve this problem. She considers that if her son has more activities after school he will have less time to party. She contemplates what rules need to be in place to prevent him from being out partying too late. She lectures him about the risks of drug use. She tries to establish family traditions and family meals because studies show kids with strong family ties, regular meals, and traditions are less likely to do drugs.
Great ideas! And this shows that worrying can be useful for problem-solving. But nothing guarantees that her son won’t do drugs. If he wants to, he will. Period. And she's still stuck in fear.
Mom's just putting a bandaid on the boo-boo in her heart. She is masking (and avoiding) the uncomfortable and painful feelings around the uncertainty of her son's future. Trying to manage her fear of her son getting involved in drugs by trying to fix and control – but it’s really just an illusion of control. Since her son is now in control of his own life, there is very little she can do to control his behaviors.
HERE ARE THE 3 STEPS TO “WORRY BETTER” SO WE CAN GO BEYOND FEAR AND INTO CONFIDENCE:
Situation: you walk by a friend who completely ignored you when you said hello. You're worried she is mad at you - did you do something wrong? Why would she do that?
Doesn’t that feel better than staying stuck in a story that she ignored you because you did something wrong? Even if she IS upset with you, what value is there in you worrying about it?
NOW LET’S USE THESE STEPS AND THE EXAMPLE OF THE 9TH GRADER AND DRUGS:
First, allow yourself to fully feel the fear.
Accept that you truly are afraid that your child will get hurt or even die if he chooses a path of drugs. Honor how scary that feels and your deep desire to protect him. Tell yourself that you are okay and that he's okay in this moment. Put your hand on your heart and take a breath. Remember that this is not real, it’s just a worry, just your imagination.
By doing this, you will open up space to consider the possibility that you and your family can survive and even thrive in the face of any crisis your imagination will create and worry about. And that it’s HIGHLY unlikely that most things we worry about will come to reality (research shows that 85% of what we worry about never happens).
Next, it’s time to play out the story and poke holes in it.
We’ll play this out with the intention of seeing that you can survive even the worst thing your imagination can create in this situation – that he DOES get addicted to drugs.
First, you come together as a family and talk it out – you realize that it’s nice to talk it over with him openly and you appreciate that he is talking openly to you. In fact, you feel connected to him and haven’t felt that way in a while.
You're worried and he's worried – you notice that he has grown up a lot and really is a sweet and loving kid. You can tell that he feels relieved to be talking to you and not facing this all alone. He even hugs you and thanks you.
You consider your options together – you notice that you're actually doing okay, you are surviving this “crisis” and somehow you are coming together as a family. You notice that he hasn’t been partying with his friends and instead is hanging around the house and in a much better mood.
You start to get creative as a family and consider options like taking a family sabbatical to Costa Rica for a year or maybe a rehab facility that feels really right for him and has great outcomes – you decide to go to Costa Rica and can’t believe that you will be spending a year there. You are excited and feel curious how something so bad might be turning out to be so amazing for your family!
You work with a counselor while there and your son is doing great – in fact, better than ever. You discuss how to transition back home and you realize you have come along way – you survived!
This may seem unlikely – that it’s pretty fantastical to imagine it going this well. But the truth is, it doesn’t matter. There is an 85% chance that what you are worried about will never become reality anyway. It’s just a made-up story either way.
Finally, we create a lovely story to focus on.
Maybe it goes something like this:
“My son goes to high school and experiments a little with drugs, drinks a little more than he should, parties more than I prefer, graduates and gets into a great college, parties some more, begins to grow into the man I always hoped and knew he would be, gets a great job, and is living a pretty normal life.”
Not totally out of the question, right?
Can you see how this process brings clarity and resolution? We first honor the fear you're feeling and second, walk through a scenario that is scary but focuses on how you would handle it and that you CAN handle it. It helps us to feel our feelings and then get confident that perhaps we can allow life to happen and face circumstances as they come up rather than trying to change things to fit how we want the world to be. This is the basic premise behind mindfulness.
Trust yourself. You can handle anything. It sets us up to treat life is an adventure rather than something to be afraid of.
And then, with the lovely story, if you focus on what you want to happen instead of what you don’t want to happen, you will more likely have a positive outcome. The truth is, what we resist persists. If nothing else, you will feel better and you can still feel like you are focusing on the thing you are worried about, but perhaps with an intention for a better outcome
“Do not anticipate trouble, or worry about what may never happen. Keep in the sunlight.” ~Benjamin Franklin
If you're going to worry anyway, why not learn to worry better?
Are you a worrier? Do you have tips for how you have learned to manage your worry? Please comment below!