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Not to Worry: 10 Things to Stop Worrying About

Photo: Simon Hayhurst/CC BY 2.0

Photo: Simon Hayhurst/CC BY 2.0

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 e-mail, 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 Cosmopolitans 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.

10. Worrying

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.

 

The Last Temptation of…You

temptationA friend of mine called recently to say, “I’ve been offered a job I don’t want. The money, power, and prestige are huge. I’m not sure I have the guts to say ‘No.’”

If I’d had to, I would’ve shot him in the foot right then—anything to keep him from selling his happiness so cheaply.

Fortunately, my friend prevailed. He rejected all that power and money, knowing it would turn him into King Midas, surrounded by gold, yet lacking the warmth, tenderness, and joy that are his real life’s purpose.

I know many people who are having similar experiences. As they get closer to leaving a dysfunctional way of life, the old way rises up like an abusive spouse shocked by a divorce decree. “Just stay with me!” it begs. “I’ll do anything you want!”

This pressure always peaks before big breakthroughs. Jesus was reportedly tempted with the power to do massive philanthropy just before he started teaching. The Buddha’s wealthy father showered him with wealth and privilege as he prepared to walk into the forest, seeking enlightenment. It may be that many almost-heroes failed similar tests. We don’t know about them, because they never quite woke up.

Don’t let this happen to you.

If you sense that joy, freedom, and love lie in a given direction, go that way no matter what the rest of the world may offer. Peel your ego’s fingers from their grip on illusions like lifelong security (doesn’t exist), your parents’ approval (can’t make you happy) and “the normal way” (disintegrating as we speak).

Your heart is a compass in a chaotic world. Follow it. Resist anything that looks reeeally good, but feels reeeally bad. Be like my friend, brave enough to turn away from shiny objects, and toward the light that makes them shine.

Photo styled and shot by Ken Weiner

Shout YES from the rooftops

 by Pamela Slim

When I was younger, I went crazy for Salsa. I don’t mean the kind involving chopped tomatoes and chili peppers, I mean the sexy, sweaty Latin dance variety.

Nothing, nothing, made me feel better than being whipped around the dance floor to the intoxicating rhythms of salsa music. While dancing, I felt like a combination of a Hollywood temptress, prom queen and Jennifer Beales in the finale of Flashdance.

My passion for salsa dancing was a little problematic since as an Anglo wannabe Latina, I didn’t have too many friends who shared my enthusiasm and were willing to go out dancing with me. Showing up as a single blond was not always recommended, as it was akin to putting a “cheap floozy looking for quick fling” sign on my chest. But my love for dancing overrode any fear of embarrassment.

Salsa dancing is one example of things in my life that make my essential self scream YES.

When I do it, I lose track of time, feel absolutely present in my body and have an involuntary silly grin plastered on my face.

Finding the things that delight and enthrall you is a critical step towards finding a life that not only fits you but thrills you. It helps you make complex decisions like whom to marry, where to go to college and whether or not to quit your job to start a business. It also works for simple things like which restaurant to go for dinner on Saturday night or which color to paint your toenails.

In my last post, I led you through an exercise about identifying your inner NO from Martha’s book Finding Your Own North Star that was sure to leave you drained and unenergized. I made you imagine a scenario where you were being judged by people you didn’t respect on things that you hated to do. I swear, I was not trying to chase you into the arms of a therapist, I just really wanted you to experience what it felt like when your essential self screamed NO.

Today, thank god, we get to swing in the opposite direction, into the people, places and things that make your essential self shout YES from the rooftops.

EXERCISE

This slightly involved but very powerful exercise is lifted directly from Finding Your Own North Star, starting on page 38. There is a lot more detail in the book and some hilarious examples of each question, but this stripped down version should still give you enough information to be effective. Take out a pencil and paper, or click on this link to open a Word template: just-say-yes21 You are going to identify a number of ways in which your essential self says “yes.”

Exercise

1. Nuclear energy.

List three things that can always get you moving (Examples: “The family New Year’s party,” “Playing pickup basketball,” “Going to the mountains.”)

Energy-inducing person, place or thing #1: ________

Energy-inducer #2: ________

Energy-inducer #3: ________

Look over the list and circle the response that makes you feel most enthusiastic.

2. To Your Health.

Try to remember three times when your health seemed better than usual. What was going on in your life at that time?

Situation #1: ________

Situation #2: ________

Situation #3: ________

Circle the situation that has the most positive associations for you right now.

3. Memories, Light the Corners of My Mind ...

Where’s your supermemory? If you can’t think of anything, you’re probably overlooking the obvious. Ask some friends and loved ones what they ‘ve noticed about your ability to pick up certain categories of information. List these categories below.

Info-type #1: ________
Info-type #2: ________
Info-type #3: ________

Circle the type of information that
interests you most. Be honest; nothing you enjoy is stupid or trivial.

4. Time Warp.

Write down the types of activities that make you forget what time it is.

Activity #1: _______
Activity:#2 _______
Activity #3: _______

Circle the activity you find most absorbing.

5. Emotional Intelligence.

Name three people who make you feel socially adept and confident, people who seem to understand you and enjoy spending time with you.

Person #1: _______

Person #2: _______

Person #3: _______

Please circle the name of the person who makes you feel most comfortable and relaxed.

6. Magnetic Attraction.

List times when you felt strangely drawn to a person, place or thing. You may have temporarily become unable to concentrate on anything else. What was the object of your desire?

Urge to merge item #1: _______

Item #2: _______

Item #3: _______

Circle the thing that brings up the most positive feelings.

7. A Natural High.

List the last three times you experienced a wonderful mood, particularly if our good mood came at a strange time or from an action other people may have criticized.

Good-mood setting #1: _______

Good-mood setting #2: _______

Good-mood setting #3: _______

Circle the situation that makes you feel the happiest.

Summary

Step 1:

In the spaces below, list the answers you circled on the exercises.

List your:

A. Most high-energy activity: _______

B. Person who makes you feel most relaxed: _______

C. Best-health situation: _______

D. Information you remember most easily: _______

E. Activity most likely to make you forget the time: _______

F. Item that created the strongest Urge to Merge: _______

G. Best mood setting: _______

Step 2

Fill in the blanks with the appropriate response.

Your Own Best-Case Scenario

It is an incredibly beautiful day. The air is clear, the scenery dazzling, and you’re setting out to do (A: Your most high-energy activity)

_________________________

with (B: your favorite person)

_________________________

You’ve got no other responsibilities, no immediate deadlines, and no major problems weighing you down. You feel great, even better than you did back when you were (C: your best health situation)

_________________________

In fact, you are in the best physical shape of your life: strong, lean, robust and full of energy. You’re having a great conversation about (D: the information you remember most easily)

_________________________

When a message arrives for you. It’s a letter from the president, saying that you have been chosen to receive a lifetime of financial support for doing (E: the activity that makes you forget time)

_________________________

This will require you to spend a lot of time with (F: the person or situation that creates the Urge to Merge)

_________________________

You feel just the way you did when (G: your best-mood setting)
_________________________

happened, only more so. Lie back for a minute, take in the scenery, and enjoy knowing that this is basically how you’re going to spend the rest of your life.

Step 3
As you did with the “worst-case scenario,” read over your “best-case” story carefully. Picture the images as vividly as you can, and notice how you feel. There’s considerable evidence that just visualizing this scene greatly increases the likelihood that you’ll experience something like it at some point in the future. In fact, no matter how impossibly wonderful it may appear, the scenario above is only a pale shadow of the splendid realities you’ll find on the path to your own North Star.

What does it feel like to you, this sense of your essential self saying “Yes! Due north!“? How would you describe the sensation– or is it a sensation at all? Many people experience their true path not as something that happens to them but as the simultaneous loss of self and complete connection with the universe. When the essential self is really in its element, you may be so involved with the work at hand, the people around you, and the things you’re learning that you won’t be aware of yourself as separate from them. This state is the goal of many mystical practices, both in Western religious tradition and in the East. It’s been described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi as “flow,” by anthropologist Joseph Campbell as “following your bliss.” What do you call it?

Identifying your inner YES, along with last post’s inner NO, are critical steps in fine tuning your internal navigation system that will lead to better decisions and a more joyful life.

I ask you, maybe even beg, to take the time to complete the exercises. Please share what you learn here, as well as the questions that pop in your mind about what’s next.

In the meantime, pardon me as I take a spin around the dance floor.

(Update 10:24am PST: comments work now, please share your thoughts!)