Mark Twain devised a clever way of looking at worries and was able to banish 92 percent of his anxieties. We’re going a step further than the literary behemoth, aiming for 100 percent deletion of your worries. This is not for the faint-hearted, but if you’re willing, I will give you the truth and the tools.
First, think of everything you tend to worry about: persistent worries, past worries, everything. Make a long “worry list”. If you’re not too depressed after doing that, assign your worry thoughts to the following categories:
- Worries about future disasters
- Worries about past decisions
- Worries about loved ones
- Worries that have a real foundation
Worries About The Future
The average worrier has many anxieties about the future, including stresses about health, wealth, and relationships. Future-based worries are often about losing something we have or not gaining something we don’t have.
We explode these concerns into a giant fear, such as “I might go broke”, or hone them down to a precise worry, like “I might screw up that presentation” (then lose my job, then go broke).
Whether we fear an event itself, the result, or the process of it (such as the painful feelings), these are all concerns about the stability of our world, our perceived status in it, and our ability to cope with change to it.
But, using the categories, Twain realized that over half of his worries were directed at future events that never happened. Most of the things that we worry about, and think of as “real” concerns, never come to pass.
Think back to your teenage angst-fests to see this clearly. I spent three years never standing with my side-profile to anyone, scared that other kids would tease me about my crooked nose (and then I’d never have a date, and be alone, and so on). No-one ever noticed my wonky schnozz, so I’d terrorized myself with imaginary bullies for no reason at all.
The antidote: Consider how many of your past worries never happened. No matter how silly they seem, they were all serious to you. Be genuinely grateful for what you have today, without attaching too strongly to it. Remember that whatever happens, it’s not actually the end of the world as long as the sun is still in the sky.
Worries About The Past
Thirty percent of Twain’s typical worries were about past decisions. Yes, the godfather of modern American Literature managed to devote a third of his thoughts to worrying that he’d screwed up or failed.
If it were possible to invent a time machine, some scientist from the future would have popped back to tell us about their clever, shiny contraption. So, we can assume that no-one has ever done it and nobody ever will. We can’t go back and change anything. Therefore, worrying about the past is futile.
It is impossible to have made a world-shatteringly awful decision if you’re still alive. If you are reading this, it means you have survived even your worst decisions. And all that human beings are designed to do is survive. Anything else we do is just a nice story to tell other people.
No-one likes to hear that because people like their fantasies. But all “achievements”, from good grades to gold medals, are just the trimmings on the turkey that is life. They are human inventions. The only thing that is real and necessary is survival. Ask people in famished countries whether they’d prefer a piece of bread or a trophy.
If you have food, water, and shelter, you have no cause to regret anything. If you can do some stuff you enjoy in life, cool. If you can “contribute”, fab. But it makes you no better than anyone else. It just makes you lucky.
I have worked with people who have survived unimaginably horrible and hard things. To me, they are more successful than anyone who won pretty prizes or academic accolades (sorry, Mr Twain).
The antidote: Invent a time machine! Or agonize over the past and see if it changes your life. If you see that is a waste of time, be proud of your survival and move on.
Worries About Loved Ones
Twain realized that 10 percent of his worries about his friends and family were due to him “forgetting these people have an ordinary amount of common sense”. He had not given his loved ones credit for being able to think and act for themselves, and had taken on the unnecessary burden of worrying about them instead.
It is presumptuous to assume we know better than other people about their own lives. Our reasoning is often that we “care”. That’s very nice, but as British crooner Sting sang in If You Love Somebody Set Them Free:
You can’t control an independent heart…Forever conditioned to believe that we can’t live…and be happy with less…Everything we see that we want to possess.
(Lyrics courtesy of Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC)
“Over-care” is a form of control. As someone in the caring profession, early in my career, I’m sure I had some grand ideas about “saving” others, which made me feel important. But I know that all I ever am to anyone is a guide. To think anything else is my ego getting too big for its boots.
This care-control relationship is conditioned into us, as Sting suggests. It’s bred into the human race, so that we don’t let our children fall off cliffs. So, don’t feel bad about your urges. Just realize that you don’t need to, and can’t, control adults. If your loved ones are still alive, they have managed to get by on their decisions, just as you have, so don’t question their ability to survive.
The antidote: Ask yourself if you enjoy being controlled, smothered, given advice you didn’t ask for, or having your common sense questioned. If you don’t like it, don’t do it to others. Divert your “worry” energy into giving help to people when they actually ask for it.
The “Real” Worries
Having rethought his worries, Twain saw that only eight percent of his anxieties had a “real foundation”. But just because some of our fears may be backed by reality, it doesn’t mean that worrying about them helps.
Worry is not natural. Newborn babies do not worry. They only fear loud noises and falling. Infants don’t lie in their cribs anxiously anticipating the next loud bang. They neither worry that they’ve cried too loudly nor care what other tots do with their lives. Babies don’t give a hoot about anything except surviving.
As we age, we create worry as an illusory device that makes us feel like we have control. We believe that if we worry about something enough — if we take enough preparatory measures, or dwell enough in regret and analysis — that we will be able to control what happens to us and other people. This is poppycock.
By buying into this illusion, we lose the only control we might be able to muster — that of controlling our own minds. Ask an OCD sufferer if constant worry and fear brings them real control or peace.
Worry is a trick of the mind. It leads you to believe you are “doing something” by worrying, instead of actually doing something by taking action. Ironically, the pointless pressure of worry can cause you to defer or avoid action.
Even if real events happen, worrying about them can’t resolve them. Only action gives you the chance to change things. Worry is just a prison, a trap.
If you’ve stopped worrying now, don’t bother reading on. If you’re still fretful, I can teach you how to face every fear. It’s not pretty, but if you want to know the truth, here we go…
What Are We Really Worried About?
All worries come down to the same thing in the end; fear of death. Sorry to go all morbid on you, but it’s true. We are afraid of the Grim Reaper harvesting us, our precious identities, other people. We are terrified of change, uncertainty, the end of what we know and love.
Worries about future destruction, concerns that the past may have destroyed our future, anxieties about loved ones making decisions that may lead to the end of our relationships with them: these all amount to the same thing — fear of death and loss.
Even suicidal people are afraid of the random hand of death. They try to take death into their own hands in an attempt to control it, to manage “perceived” deaths, such as losing others or being obliterated by their difficult feelings.
It’s common, but also odd, to worry about physical death; it is inevitable and natural. Neither botox nor prayers can save us. And when we die, we probably don’t know we’re dead. We cease to exist. Unless you believe in heaven or reincarnation; but then you don’t totally die, so…
Whatever you believe happens after death doesn’t matter. Whether you think we go to paradise, melt into the universe, or just feed the worms, the antidote to your worries is the same. If you can conquer fear of every type of death, every loss, you need never worry about anything ever again.
You can still sensibly avoid death. Don’t paint yourself with gazelle fat and throw yourself at lions. Don’t drink poison for the heck of it. We don’t live in constant terror of touching a hot stove; we just avoid it.
What would actually happen if you didn’t worry? If you stopped worrying, what would be left? Like the Dr Pepper slogan, “What’s the worst that could happen?” Ultimately, the “worst” that can happen is death. And if you’re not fearful of death, perceived or actual, you won’t worry about anything else. And the best that could happen is freedom.
The antidote: Just live. If you still worry, stop worrying about your worries; just see them for the illusion they are. Then you will live in peace, just the same. If you need help to stop severe anxiety, get it; the freedom is worth it.