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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

My moment of Zen, or how I learned to stop worrying...sort of

Julie's question for this week's Hump Day Hmm:
What 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?

13 comments:

  1. Being a worrier, I'm checking in with the SoCal people -- since you're writing this at 6am the following morning, I take it you weathered the earthquake and had no major incidents.

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  2. Kiva - I use scheduled posting; this was actually written on Monday evening :-). But yes, we're fine. I'm off to your blog to check in with you!

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  3. Being a worrier (who's trying her best to Zen every moment of the day) and a mom, I worry (see?) that I'm teaching my kids to be worriers, too...

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  4. I think you had some valid worries in the past; I know I would worry about the same things.

    I'm a pretty big worrier about some things. I get very stressed with the kids at zoos, pools and malls. I worry that something bad is going to happen all the time. I'm working on that. :)

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  5. You know, if there's anything that ramps up the worry tendencies, it's having kids. Wanting to keep them safe and raise them right stirs up all sorts of control issues.

    Sarah - Well, as I said, I learned worrying from my mom...Keep trying for the Zen moments :-).

    Mike - My husband's list of worries includes all the same things, and when my son was young, mine did too. It's funny how much less there is to worry about once your kids are out of college :-).

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  6. Ah. Yes, I am a worrier/anxious one and I know it has to do with control. What has been good in life is learning, as you did, about wise worrying and knowledge and understanding of control.

    This is a great post for me (and others) because I think it reiterates that element of wise control.

    So glad once again that you joined in.

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  7. Julie - "Wise worrying." I didn't realize there's a word for it, but that seems just right. Coming to understand what it is - and trying to practice it more often than not - really has made a difference.

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  8. What an interesting idea. Worrying for the sake of worrying does no one any good, but worrying about how to actually solve a problem is a good thing and that's what helps people make changes in anything.

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  9. LE35 - Exactly, and it's been both empowering and reassuring to learn the difference.

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  10. I worry, but I try keep it in perspective and not confues it with fear.

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  11. Blogversary - I agree, it's important to know there's a difference between worry and fear, and to be able to recognize it. I'm getting better at knowing which is which, most of the time.

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  12. I am such a worrier but less so now than at earlier stages in my life so perhaps one outgrows it (I am 44 by the way).

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  13. Anniegirl1138 - I'm 44 too! Maybe I have outgrown some of the worrying too...maybe once you've seen enough hard knocks to have learned you can handle them, there's less to worry about?

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