stunning realization has enlightened you recently, or at some point in
your life, and caused you to take a turn, either in your life path or in
your thinking? And…what happened next?
During my first husband’s early-onset midlife crisis – you know, the
one that included the affair, the separation, the unsuccessful reunion,
and the eventual long-drawn-out divorce – I had no shortage of things
to worry about. Of course, I had been raised by a worrier – my mom
would be pacing the sidewalk if you were late getting home, and
half-expected to see an ambulance or a police car pull up instead (this
was in the long-ago days before cell phones). With that kind of an
example, you can get pretty good at it yourself.
As might be expected, a lot of my worry had to do with my future, which
was suddenly in limbo. I had never truly been “single” as an adult – I
had never even lived alone – and I was looking at approaching forty and
learning to be on my own for the first time. During this period, I did
some reading in a genre I had rarely taken seriously before – self-help
– and found that some of what I read actually was quite enlightening
and, yes, helpful. Two books that made quite a difference for me were
by Judith Viorst, Necessary Losses and Imperfect Control.
Both of them contributed to my making a connection that later seemed
obvious – as is so often the case – and has made a big change in how I
engage with the world: worry is inversely related to control. The more control you feel you have in a situation, the less there is to worry about.
The “feeling of control” may not be the same thing as actually having
control over something, and it’s an important distinction. It’s similar
to the idea of the Serenity Prayer, which asks for “the serenity to
accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I
can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” I think
the last of those is the most important, and coming to understand this
was liberating. I started to see a lot of the situations in my life
from this new angle, and realized that I had both more and less control
than I knew.
Other people could control how I acted through the
rules they set, but couldn’t control what I thought or felt about those
rules and behaviors. I couldn’t
control what happened in the larger world around me, but I could
control how it affected me and how I reacted to it. I needed to be
aware of possible problems, and in some cases have specific plans for
how I might prepare for them, but I didn’t need to waste energy
fretting, or be afraid to do anything because of what might
happen. I could stay more focused on the present and the short term
instead of becoming anxious about an uncertain future. And feeling that
sense of control – that I’ve done what I can, and the rest isn’t up to
me, because I can’t bend the rest of the world in my direction – gives
me a lot less worry and anxiety.
Getting back to that point about others being able to control my behavior but not my feelings – that one does, of course, work both ways. Your kids don’t have to like doing what they’re told, but they’ll most likely have to do it anyway. Accepting that you really can’t do much about what people will think of you is not a license to be thoughtless and inconsiderate, by any means. In fact, I think that knowing that other people’s opinions of me will be formed based on what they observe about me makes it even more important to express my best self. But knowing that my influence is limited really has reduced the amount of energy I spend worrying about “what other people will think.”
It’s not true to say I never worry any more. When I married for the
second time, I got another worrier. His style of worrying is more like
the way I try to deal with worry now – when something’s worrying him,
he takes action to try to get control over it – but sometimes we feed
each other’s anxious tendencies. I’m not sure I’d want to be completely worry-free, to be honest, especially now that I’m aware of the ways that worry can spur action and positive change. I’m glad to do a lot less pointless fretting, though – it’s nice not worrying about worrying so much anymore.
Are you a worrier? How do you deal with it?