There seems to be a lot of things to worry about these days. We’ve got an apparently looming recession, a continued crisis in the housing and home mortgage markets, global warming, the war in Iraq, lots of anti-American sentiment all across the globe, athletes using illegal drugs to gain competitive advantage, numerous unsolvable and chronic illnesses plaguing our population, a national obesity epidemic, mercury in our fish, high-fructose corn syrup in everything else, electromagnetic frequency overload doing God knows what to our brains and nervous systems…and, for the cosmetically-minded among us, we face harrowing conditions of sagging skin and crevice-like crow’s feet and yellow teeth and unwanted hair. Not to mention the stubborn cellulite that has taken up permanent residence on our thighs.
At least there is something for everyone. Whatever your particular quirks and preferences, there is something really meaty for you to worry about. Lots, really.
Which is why I hope you’ll be pleased to learn that I’m something of a worry expert. There is a remarkably potent strain of worry in the family DNA, the fullest expression of which I seem to have inherited. I think you’d be impressed with the depth and consistency of my negative interpretations of any event. And for much of my professional corporate career, I was a paid worrier. We didn’t call it that, of course. We called it a “business analyst.” As a business and financial analyst, I dreamed up all number of “what-if” scenarios and projected the likely results of each – and my specialty, of course, was the “worst case” scenario. So I can not only conjure up countless ways something could go wrong, I can also generate a spreadsheet to show you exactly how much it’s going to hurt.
And after many years of developing and honing this skill, I am now ready to offer the accumulated wisdom of my experience: Worry doesn’t work. Or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that it works exceptionally well at making you feel terrible, while not actually solving anything. In fact, in the words of a good friend of mine who was a catalyst in my worry reform, “Worry is like praying for what you don’t want.”
Somehow that got my attention in a way all of my previous attempts at simply telling myself not to worry had not. It was so startlingly simple, and it resonated with a deeply intuitive truth I was longing to hear. I could give myself full permission not to worry and, even better, I could stand firmly in the knowledge that letting go of worry was the responsible thing to do. I certainly didn’t want my “worry prayers” wreaking havoc on myself or others, so I had to let them go. (It wasn’t exactly that easy, of course, but we’ll get to that in a minute!)
Here’s the thing about worry: it is an icky static that interferes with clear and inspired thinking. No matter what your current experience is, being in a state of worry pretty much guarantees that you won’t have access to the creativity and brilliance you need to move through it. And even worse, worry as energy vibrates at a particular frequency, which means that as long as you indulge it, you’ll continue to attract the unpleasant thoughts, emotions and experiences that vibrate with it. So the best-case scenario, in the lingo of my old business analyst days, is that whatever you’re worrying about won’t really materialize – but your feelings of resignation and dread and the occasional panic will obliterate the joy and peace of mind otherwise available to you. And the worst-case scenario is that, because you’re so focused on what could go wrong, you’ll begin acting – and attracting – in a way that increases the likelihood of it actually happening. And there it is - praying for what you don’t want.
Clearly not an effective strategy for living a joyful life.
Which reminds me of a recent, very public event that illuminates what actually is an effective strategy for living a joyful life. I was fortunate enough to have stayed awake past my usual bedtime the other night, dozing off while waiting for the Olympic swimming events to begin. My drifting focus was called to attention by the building energy around a particular relay race featuring Michael Phelps, the world’s fastest swimmer. Prior to the event, a comment was made by one of the swimmers on the French team that they intended to “crush the Americans” in this race. The French team was favored to win, and they fully expected to do so.
But the French team didn’t win. The American team did, by hundredths of a second. It was truly a thrill to watch, and of course everyone went wild over the outcome. After the race, an interviewer was immediately on hand to speak with the winning team. At one point she asked what effect the French comment had had on them as they prepared for the event. One of the team members responded immediately, and although I don’t remember his specific words the message was simple and clear: they did not pay attention to the comment. They remained focused on what they had to do.
Can you imagine what might have happened, had they dwelled on that comment or perhaps escalated its effects with some kind of arrogant retort? Their attention would have been diverted from their commitment and their practice, and they might have lost the race. And that is exactly what worry does – it diverts our attention from our commitment and our practice. It distracts us from our purpose, shrouds our creativity and robs us of our peace of mind.
And so stopping the worry habit is one of the most powerful and compassionate things we can do for ourselves, and for the world. If worrying is ingrained in you, shifting the tiresome old habit may not be easy. But rest assured, it is possible. (I should know!) What it takes is a firmly held intention to let go of worry, increased awareness of the nature of our thinking, and a willingness to call a time-out from the worrisome thoughts and bring ourselves back to the present moment. In this moment, my needs are met. In this moment, I can breathe deeply and relax. In this moment, I can ground and center myself. And in the next moment, I can open to creativity and inspiration.
I remember when I left my full-time job to pursue my dreams to be a teacher and writer and coach, I had to make a decision about whether to sell my house. My business analyst-worrier was in full swing, generating all kinds of spreadsheets with varying cash flow forecasts. They were dire. The worry about losing my home escalated into panic and I could barely breathe. At a higher level of awareness I reminded myself that suffocating in this kind of fear was hardly a prescription for living the awake and inspired life I dreamed of, so I turned off the computer and got down on the floor to do some yoga. I literally grounded myself and slowed my breathing. I came back to the moment I was in, rather than losing myself in all the “worst-case” future moments I had created. I surrendered my worrying thoughts to the stillness, and simply rested there.
And in that stillness, truth came to me. I knew I was to stay in my house. That’s all I knew in that moment, but the power of the experience awakened me to the deeper truth that I needed to stay committed to my true Self and to my dreams. My what-ifs and worries were like the taunts of the French team swirling around the American team, and they could only affect me if I let them. But like the American team, I was reminded to focus on what I came here to do – not on what my worrying mind was afraid I could not do.
And so I did, and five years later I am teaching and coaching and writing – and still living in my beloved home. (I’m also wrestling with those pesky and persistent worries from time to time, but I now know that the only power they have is the power I give them. And so I try to be very stingy.)
“But what about the recession?!” you might be thinking. “Shouldn’t you be worried about your business declining during the recession??” (Okay, perhaps you’re not really thinking that, but let’s go with it.) My response is that no, I shouldn’t be worried about the recession. Because that would be irresponsible. I cannot predict whether there will be a recession, or how it might affect me. I can only do what I know to do, and respond moment by moment to whatever I experience.
So my responsibility is to cultivate my ability to respond effectively, and my ability to respond effectively arises from my energy, my groundedness, my unbridled creativity, my connection to inner guidance, my clear and focused attention, my openness to new opportunities and my willingness to explore emerging options. It arises from my presence, and a true response can only happen in the present. Worry, in contrast, shuttles us into a cramped and confined future, blinding us to the very opportunities and inspiration that can support us now.
This doesn’t mean we should never plan or prepare, or thoughtfully consider how we might want to navigate through an upcoming period in our lives. But there is a big difference between preparing and worrying. True preparation acknowledges and builds on our strengths, talents and resources. It is affirming and expansive. We do now what we are called to do and what we are willing and able to do - and we stay committed to the practices that keep us grounded, calm and clear. We develop a profound trust that we are “in shape” and can respond to the inevitable ebbs and flows of our experience.
Worrying gets in the way of fruitful preparation. It gets in the way of everything, actually. It is always constricting, deflating and defeating. It confuses and paralyzes us, which is hardly the optimal state for living an awake and inspired life. Are you feeling more willing and motivated to break the worry habit? I hope so! But if all of my impassioned writing about it hasn’t convinced you, just remember: worrying is like praying for what you don’t want.
Now would be a good time to quit.