Try Not To Worry About Worrying

We are a worrisome species. Our genetic code predisposes us to be pretty hypervigilant. An elderly Mark Twain once observed: “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.”  So why we do worry so much?

 Evolutionary psychologists believe this negativity bias gives us a survival advantage. We overestimate danger in order to be on the safe side of things.  And given we may not survive a single false positive – like ‘that snake looks cuddly’ – under selection pressure the worrier genes are the ones that got passed on to us.

So that’s half of our story. We worry far more than is warranted and that disproportionality is, by and large, a good thing.

But the disproportion is greatly amplified in our modern environment because it is so much safer than our ancestral home!  As unfriendly as modern cities can be, apex predators are still pretty thin on the ground, real estate agents notwithstanding!  The gap between our worries and the actual danger is greater than it has ever been.

What’s the other half of our story?  We’re often simultaneously aware that our worries are in fact disproportionate: they we are catastrophizing, exaggerating, being overly pessimistic or just illogical. 

With this double consciousness we say to ourselves and others: ‘I know I shouldn’t worry about it, but I can’t help it’; ‘The feeling just overwhelms me’. ‘What’s wrong with me?’  In other words, we then have a second problem: we now worry about our worrying. We might ask ourselves ‘Have I got some type of anxiety disorder?’; ‘Am I neurotic?’  Worrisome indeed!

And this raises another very big question: Is the ‘real me’ the worrier or the observer who worries about the worrying?  Or, as we will see, is it yet another observer who is more relaxed about the observing worrying self? The first thing to say is we are complex.  We are not cut of one piece of cloth.

A brief introspection reveals we contain a repertoire of selves.  Indeed, neuroscience along with a 2,500-year-old Buddhist psychology, reveals there is no unitary, central self. As psychologist Miller Mair once put it, we are more akin to a ‘Community of Selves’.  And the goal may be to create a more fluid, harmonious community.

And to be clear: this is a metaphor; not a metaphysical claim.  If we were to be more precise, I’d say we have a community of selvings, because these are ways of being; they are verbs, not nouns; they’re processes not things.

Anyway, one of the things we worry about is that we contradict ourselves. We might, for example reasonably ask: ‘am I honest or dishonest?’.  If we are to be honest, we’d have to acknowledge our frequent dishonesty! 

We are subject to the shifting of our emotional and social mentalities all the time: we’re sad and happy, afraid and peaceful, depressed and energetic, competitive and caregiving, aggressive and compassionate… often all in the same day! 

These mentalities organize our minds and our bodies in ways that are usually beyond our immediate control and are not of our immediate choosing. They just happen.  Mostly we are not even aware of them, per se, but simply identify with them. 

They are what psychologists call ‘quick and dirty appraisals’, or heuristics, that help us navigate life more or less automatically. They largely run themselves, taking us along for the ride.   

What is one to do? Walt Whitman, the great American poet and essayist, cut to the heart of this when he observed: Do I contradict myself?  Very well then, I contradict myself (I am large, I contain multitudes.) Walt Whitman Song of Myself, 51. 

So, I guess the first thing we do is accept that this is so. We accept with equanimity. This is a type of enlightened, totally alert understanding. It is neither passive nor resigned. And what does this wise understanding enable?

Well, when we stop identifying with the current mentalizing, we now have a choice that was not possible before.  We can draw upon our entire repertoire of selves.  We can choose what appears to be the optimal state of being for this particular circumstance.

For example, if we find ourselves angry and yelling at our partner, and we realize this is not helpful, and this angry me is not ‘me’ in any kind of permanent sense, we can decide what is more helpful now.  Can we embody the compassionate me?  Can we quieten our voice? Can we listen more and draw upon feelings of kindness and understanding?

This is a practice. The more we do it, the more it becomes us through the miracle of neuroplasticity which changes the very structure of our brain.  We become what we do.  The more we practice kindness and compassion, the easier it becomes to embody it. It could eventually become our default response.

What else? We can cultivate other mentalities: calmness or feelings of safety.  Curiosity and an orientation of inquiry.  Patience and perseverance.  Humour and creativity in everyday life. In the end it is an empirical question: what’s more constructive and helpful? What’s wise? 

Without oversimplifying, wise action is what actually increases my happiness and the happiness of those around me.  Ironically, we become less self-concerned as we realize there is not a ‘self’ in here to be concerned about.

Happiness results more often and more of life will becomes an interesting inquiry. In this context, worrying about being a worrier becomes something we just don’t care to worry about!