Worrying Well

There is no doubt we’re living in worrisome times, and little doubt that past generations would have said the same of their times. If worry is ever-present, learning how to worry well (or at least better) seems a useful skill to master.

How do you worry? Are you someone who replays past conversations or events over and over again, going through in detail what you said/should have said, did/should have done? Or is your worry more focused on the future, anticipating how something will unfold, what you’ll say next time your mother gives you that look, or you see that cute guy or girl?

Worry is essentially our brain’s tendency to rehash and rehearse – it replays the past hoping we will learn from our mistakes and therefore not repeat them, or anticipates the future, giving us a chance to run our lines and prepare our scripts.

But while these are helpful and necessary processes, worry can also become chronic. It can keep us so caught up in rehashing the past or rehearsing the future that we fail to be present to the present.

If you find that worry sometimes has its way with you, here are a couple of things to try:

  • Take a worry inventory: using post-in notes or some scrap paper, take a walk through your mind and identify the things that are currently asking for your worried attention. As you find these – for example, “there’s the thing with my sister, remembering to book my flight for next month, talking to my boss about the project”… – write each one on a separate piece of paper. If there are any items that you need to deal with right away, pull them aside and organize them in the order you will address them. If none of them are pressing right at this minute (Hint: if it’s 2:00am and “get out of my burning home” is not one of the items, NONE of them are pressing right at this minute!), put them in a box or jar and lay them aside until you are able and willing to address them. You will likely find that just the act of acknowledging the things that are preoccupying you, and giving yourself the message that you WILL deal with them is itself freeing.
  • Try the ‘worry well but only once’ technique proposed by Margaret Wehrenberg. Set aside a time in your schedule (20-30 minutes) and make that your worry time. Use that time to actively worry – rehash and rehearse to your heart’s (and mind’s) content, make the lists you need to make, plan the strategies you need to plan, review the foibles, humiliations and disappointments you need to review… Then when your time is up, put worry away. If it calls your name later on, remind yourself that you already worried today and you’re going to worry again tomorrow, so save it for your worry time. You may find that condensing worry into an acute 20-30 minute time slot is much preferable to the 24/7 chronic low-grade variety of worrying.

Taming Your Saboteurs

Have you met your saboteurs? I’m not talking about the spouse who brings home your favourite dessert to celebrate your sticking to a meal plan, or the friend who compliments your weight training achievements with “you’re really getting cut – does it bother you that people will start to think you look like a man?”

The saboteurs I’m thinking of live even closer to home, in your own psyche. They sometimes act up just when things start going your way, and sometimes wait until you’re getting close to reaching a goal you’ve been striving for before they pounce.

When I’m working with someone and find that they have either hit a prolonged plateau or are backsliding after some initial progress, one of the things I’m always curious about is whether there’s a saboteur at work. Because while process resistance may often rear its head –knowing what to do in order to get what we want, but not always wanting or feeling motivated to do it – sometimes the saboteur is outcome resistance. Outcome resistance is the part of us that wants what we want but also fears what we want, or is uncertain we can handle all that comes with what we want, or wonders if we should want what we want, or gets stymied at the thought of what we’ll want next, etc. etc.

Outcome resistance usually operates at the preconscious level, because it’s linked to our core beliefs – that is, our long-ago formed ideas about who we are, how the world works, and what we deserve. If someone has a deep-held belief that they are undeserving (of love, of health, of attention from others for example), the glaring incongruity between that belief and the changes they are trying to make creates the space for sabotage; to bring things back into alignment, they would either have to change their core beliefs (if the ‘core’ didn’t already tip you off, this is not an uncomplicated task), or bring their outcomes closer in line with their beliefs.

So how do you prevent your psychic saboteurs from, well, sabotaging? You start by being really clear on why you want what you want. For example: Why do I want to change my eating habits? Not (just) because I want to fit into the too-small jeans I bought on sale last week, but because I deserve to live in a body that is mobile and has energy and vitality; I want to feed that body well, and move it every day.

So next time you’re contemplating making a change that you think will significantly impact your life, spend at least as much time thinking about why you want to make that change as you do thinking about how you’ll go about it. Getting familiar with where your potential saboteurs may be waiting for you is the first step to negotiating your way around them.