A long time ago I had the thought: what would my life look like if I didn’t worry at all? How amazing would that be? I thought about how free I would feel, how easy, how peaceful. I wanted to write a blog post about it, to try to inspire myself and others to do our best to live that way, without worrying…and then of course, life got busy. It was like my head, which had peeked above the clouds for a second and glimpsed another way, sank back down into the murk of my usual stress level, and it just felt hypocritical to write about worrying less when I was actually worrying every day. So I tabled the idea and continued on.
Then one morning last week, I was feeling OK. Despite it being a busy few weeks, everything on the near horizon was under control. And yet, I realized, my mind was actively scanning the future for possible problems and I was beginning to feel stressed. I got PISSED. Here I was feeling fine, with no real reason to be anxious, and yet my mind was trying to find one??
As I considered this, I realized that I do it all the time. It occurred to me that some part of me must think it’s my job to worry constantly. It seems to be my default setting, even after all these years of trying to be more peaceful and positive-minded.
Here’s what happens: I’m always thinking ahead to make sure that I’m prepared for whatever is coming up. I make notes and write stuff on my calendar and figure out what I need to do when, etc. That is fine and actually necessary to make sure our lives run smoothly. And if I stopped there, it would just be a positive, helpful behavior.
But I don’t. Once I’ve made sure that everything in the immediate future is considered and planned for, instead of relaxing and focusing on the present, I keep going. I look further and further ahead to responsibilities down the road, and to potential conflicts and possible problems.
And then, when I think about all of that on top of what is currently going on, I feel overwhelmed and anxious—especially since most of what I’m worrying over is either something I can’t do anything about right now or something that might not even happen. I get either extremely jittery or super tired—but either way I want to run away! Which is not exactly helpful or conducive to managing my current responsibilities, and it feels awful.
So after I got some clarity on this pattern the other morning, I sat down to think about why it might be so. Why would I feel like my job is to constantly think ahead and worry about the future? And why does it feel like if I don’t do this, something terrible will happen? Like I’m shirking my duty?
I thought about my son, who just started high school, and how we’re teaching him to plan ahead so that he gets all his schoolwork done on time. It’s not something that comes naturally to him, and I remembered that it didn’t come naturally to me either when I was his age. In fact, I remembered, I would actually get in trouble for not planning ahead or not thinking about the consequences of my actions, and would often get punished. Boom! Lightbulb moment! When I was younger, if I didn’t think ahead, something terrible WOULD happen! I would get punished! I got the message that I had to always be thinking ahead—and so like any good and obedient girl, that is what I do. Wow.
Once I realized that, I realized I had the power to start retraining myself, and that “less worry, more wonder” might actually be possible for me. I first saw that phrase about five years ago on life coach Carla Robertson’s website and it really appealed to me. It has been part of my mission on this “joy detective” journey—to feel more open to wonder, and less constrained by worry. Now I think I might have made a breakthrough in how to do that.
Of course I still need to plan ahead, and will always do that—you can’t be a successful adult without that ability. But the key is in stopping myself from going further. Once I am sure that I have thought through what’s important for now, I can rest. It is no longer my job to constantly scan the horizon for potential problems. There is a LOT of trust involved in this, and it’s something I’m going to have to practice over and over. But so far here is what I do:
I realize I’m worrying about something unnecessarily. (That’s actually a big first step, to become aware of what I’m doing.) Then I tell my mind that it’s not my job to think about that right now, and that in fact, worrying about the future is harmful to me in the present.
I make a conscious decision to let the worry go, and trust that it will be OK. I’ve even got a mantra to repeat: “I don’t know how it’s going to work out, but I trust that it will all work out for the best.” Some people recommend writing down whatever you are worrying about, putting it in a special box or jar, and giving it over to God or the Universe or whatever higher power you believe in. I’ve done this before with big issues that I had no control over, and it really does help.
Anxiety and fear are so draining. If I can relax about the future, and trust that everything will in fact work out (without my needing to obsess over it constantly), it will free up so much energy! And it will give me an expansive feeling of peace and ease, which is much more conducive to everyday happiness.
So that’s my goal: to go through this process whenever I find myself worrying, and return my thoughts to the present. My hope is that the process will get easier over time, and I will in fact have less worry, which will make room for more wonder. I’ll let you know how it goes! And if you have any tips for worrying less, I’d love to hear them!