Attention, worrywarts: Martha Beck hereby grants you permission to stop fretting, agonizing, panicking, and otherwise losing sleep over things you can't control.
Everywhere I turn these days, people are urging me to worry. "Restaurants are swarming with bacteria!" shouts a local news promo. "We'll tell you what to beware of!" From the computer in my lap, a parenting blog warns, "There's plenty to be anxious about." Noting the pallor of my furrowed brow, a neighbor clucks, "I think you should be more concerned about your health."
Friends, there are many areas in which I need encouragement, but worrying is not one of them. I worry the way Renée Fleming sings high Cs: Effortlessly. Loudly. At length. You may be similarly gifted, because worrying comes easily to a certain subpopulation of humans, namely those of us with pulses. We're constantly creating new, worry-based strategies for living.
But worrying is worrisome: It's stressful, and as we all know, stress will kill you. I worry about that a lot. So today I'm striking a tiny blow for sanity with my list of ten things you can officially stop worrying about.
1. What's On Your Plate
"If I can just finish this project," says my ultrabusy friend Nancy, "I can stop worrying." She's said this every time I've ever spoken to her. No matter how much work Nancy finishes, by the time it's done she's fixating on a whole new crop of chores. In our achievement-obsessed society, this is "normal." But I realized just how insane it is when a friend was dying of cancer. On her deathbed she managed to joke with me, "Hey, at least I only have one more thing on my to-do list."
Instead of fretting about getting everything done, why not simply accept that being alive means having things to do? Then drop into full engagement with whatever you're doing, and let the worry go.
"But," you may be thinking, "I can't just cut my anxiety loose! It isn't under my control!" I empathize with this argument. I also know it's bunk. To stop worrying about something, simply direct your attention toward something else. Personally, I like to interrupt my flow of worry by imagining -- vividly -- what I'd do if an elk walked into the room. See? Distraction works.
2. Needing Help
I used to be one of those people who spurned assistance -- from other people, from God, from chemicals. Not anymore! These days -- whether I'm begging for divine intervention, enlisting a fellow coach to help me overcome my aversion to email, or refilling the awesome prescription that helps me sleep no matter how disruptive my schedule -- I pretty much walk around hollering, "Help wanted!"
Are my helpers crutches? You betcha. Mama needs crutches, and she doesn't worry one little bit about using them. If you worry about needing what you need -- a shoulder to cry on, a standing date with a shrink, whatever the shrink prescribes -- come to Mama, and she'll smack you upside the head with her crutches until that worry flies right out of your mind.
3. Your Children
There was a time when I spent many hours worrying about my kids. In fact, I was so worried my firstborn would feel unloved that I "soothed" her constantly, blasting the poor child with a fire hose of anxious energy. It's a wonder she survived.
My second child, who arrived with an extra 21st chromosome, eventually led me to a shocking conclusion: We don't actually have much control over the way our kids turn out. Genes do a lot of the deciding, and the owner of those genes does most of the rest. Some kids let parents have a great deal of influence; others don't. Either way, people blossom when we love them, not when we worry about them. Worry just teaches worry. Let it go.
4. Your Face (And Hips, And Butt...)
As long as we're on the subject of DNA, let's take on the big kahuna of worries: our appearance. Ten bajillion product ads notwithstanding, your looks are another thing that's basically genetic. Stressing about them only deepens the facial creases that make everyone in your family resemble perturbed bulldog puppies. Key phrase: everyone in your family.
Instead of obsessing over your own appearance, try noticing -- and mentioning -- beautiful things about everyone else. This will make people adore you, which, last time I checked, is what most of us are hoping to achieve by worrying about our looks in the first place.
5. What You Own
The trick here is learning to reframe your perspective. For example, my friend Kathy always lays a colorful towel over her expensive tablecloth before serving her twin 7-year-old granddaughters a snack. One of the twins recently said, "Grandma, you don't need to worry about us spilling. Spills are just memories." If you'd rather live surrounded by pristine objects than by the traces of happy memories, stay focused on tangible things. Otherwise, stop fixating on stuff you can touch and start caring about stuff that touches you.
6. Everything You're Doing Wrong
I don't know any perfect people, but I know many who worry about being perfect. They exercise religiously and serve their families home-cooked organic free-range Tofurky recipes. They are unbearable.
I love the Buddhist concept of enlightenment as living without anxiety over imperfection. You can strain every fiber of your being trying to be flawless, only to face inevitable failure -- or you can stop worrying about perfection, which instantly makes everything feel great. Save time and tofu: Choose option two.
7. The Past
I agree that your divorce settlement was a travesty of justice on par with the sack of Troy, that your last boss was abusive, and that you shouldn't have calmed yourself with so many appletinis prior to testifying before Congress. I do not agree that worrying about it now will do any good.
The word worry comes from the Old English wyrgan, meaning "to strangle." When we fixate on something in the past, we grab our own histories by the throat, cutting off the flow of physical and emotional energy that keeps us fully alive. To start the flow again, look forward. Think how you can apply what you've learned. Let your divorce teach you to negotiate assertively, your horrible boss help you spot and avoid other creeps. Let the debacle at Congress send you to a 12-step meeting. Embracing the lesson always loosens the stranglehold of worry.
8. What People Are Saying About You Right This Very Second
People are always telling me elaborate stories about the elaborate stories other people are supposedly telling about them. "I know people mock my pain," growls one client. "Everyone expects me to be strong," says another. "You think I'm expendable," sobs a wife, while her husband protests, "You think I'm a robot." All of these people are wrong, but they've got company. We all worry what people think about us -- until we decide not to waste the energy.
When I first started coaching, I noticed that I never worried what my clients thought of me. Why not? All my attention was focused on understanding them. I watched like a Martian observer, not a vulnerable peer. This took me out of worry mode, and it helped clients feel seen. By not worrying about what they thought of me, I accidentally ensured that they thought well of me.
Today, pretend you're a Martian gathering data on humans. As you notice what they do and say without focusing on your fear of their opinions, you'll feel less self-conscious, and they'll feel the nonjudgmental attention they've always wanted from you. Win-win.
9. Your Account Balance
I have nothing against the globally sacred rite of worrying about money. Except this: People, it has no payoff.
I stopped worrying about money when I was unemployed, living on credit card debt. It wasn't that my ship came in. It was just that I'd decided to try writing for a living, yet I was too worried to write. So I proactively pushed aside worry as I worked. Did I make money that day? No. Did I make money sooner because I stopped worrying? I think so. Did I enjoy my life more from that moment on, regardless of how much I had in the bank? Abso-freaking-lutely. Go about your business, whatever it is, with full energy. And drop the worry. Watch how much stronger your moneymaking skills become when you're not dragging around a hefty load of anxiety.
If your Spanx are now totally knotted from trying to stop worrying, it's time to take a nice, cleansing breath. Aaahhhh. Remember point number six: We're not after perfection here. If you've felt even a tiny release from worry while reading this list, you're succeeding. That slight lessening of anxiety is all you need.
Wiggle your worries a little each day, and they'll gradually lose their hold on you. Trust that you're already counteracting the barrage of messages that tell us, every day, to worry, worry, and worry some more. Enjoy the liberating sense of bucking the cultural tide. And speaking of bucks, if you have further questions, please feel free to direct them to my elk.
Martha Beck's latest book is Finding Your Way in a Wild New World (Free Press).