Spend any time at all with almost anyone and you’ll quickly discover that most of us worry. There are the biggies like cancer and job loss. There are the not-so-biggies like hail damage and sewer backups. There are the down-right itty-bitty ones like “will he call me” and “does my purse match my shoes?” To our dismay, some have elevated worry into an art form. No matter is too unlikely or trivial to escape their attention. I’m not really addressing those people because I suspect that worry is a comfortable companion they’re unlikely to forsake.
For the rest of us getting control of the worry habit makes good sense. Psychiatrists talk about the dangers of toxic worry. We all recognize the physiological changes that occur in our bodies when we’re caught up in the spiral of playing “what if.” The loss of appetite (or compulsive overeating), insomnia, headache, mood swings, unsettled gut. Worry robs us of joy, time, energy, well-being, hope. And most of it is so damn unproductive.
About 25 years ago, as a young, bright-eyed woman who saw life as black or white, I found myself at the centre of a public debate about something I’d written in a local newspaper. People were coming down on either one side or the other of this issue. At that point in my life I didn’t have the life experience, courage, good sense or wherewithal to deal with public criticism. It felt personal and threatening. I didn’t think I deserved that treatment. But I hadn’t yet toughened up to the point where I could say “everyone has an opinion, we don’t agree on this one, drop dead.”
I was scheduled to be away for a few days and then, like now, I turned to books for help. Dale Carnegie’s How to Stop Worrying and Start Living and the physical distance I had from the situation got me through. I was amazed that a book written in 1944 could offer such timeless and timely advice to me. I haven’t picked up the book in decades yet the other day I found myself repeating the famous 3 steps to a bunch of co-workers. That’s the sort of lasting impact all authors pray for. In short form, here are those steps:
First analyze the situation fearlessly and honestly to determine what is the worst thing that could happen. If it doesn’t include the prospect of death, chances are it’ll be okay.
Second, reconcile yourself to the possibility that you may have to live with the outcome you most dread.
Third, calmly devote time and energy to improving upon the worst-case scenario that you’ve already mentally confronted. Having a plan of attack frees the mind from worry and burns up that nervous energy that accompanies it. Then just let it go.
Recognizing that 90% of the things we worry about never materialize is a great comfort too. Following Carnegie’s advice makes sense from where I sit.
*Reprinted with permission