“Here is a new spiritual practice for you: don’t take your thoughts so seriously.” ~ Eckhart Tolle
It takes courage to break free from worry. This may sound strange, but there is comfort in the fears that underly our mental fretting and catastrophizing. They are familiar, more familiar than we know, and they buffer us in insidious ways. For these reasons and more, we easily get stuck in fear and thus in worry.
Many don’t associate worry with fear. They spend their minutes, hours and days worrying, often believing it’s a feeling—“I feel worried”—without considering that worry, like planning and analysis, is a state of mind. The thinking kind of mind. Fear, however, is clearly an emotion, and it’s the primary and primal one giving rise to the persistent, obsessive, fretting we call worry.
Hyper-vigilance is an expression of fear. It keeps us in control, or at least gives us a false sense of being in control. This fear-based control was depended on heavily for many of us when children, when we felt scared of and powerless to our dysfunctional and unpredictable surroundings. Fear-based control and vigilance enacted survival responses of orienting, assessing, and predicting. What’s that noise? What are my options? When will dad be home (so I can hide in my room)? With the aid of vigilant worry, we were preparing for fight, flight or fawn. Our minds, driven by fear, were spinning with possibilities!
Without that level of fear and vigilance we would have felt even more vulnerable. It was a necessary survival response at that time. Decades later, though, the problem is that we still, in times of stress, default to old patterns of excessive vigilant concern—what if, could’a, would’a, should’a—to the point of turning our stomach into knots. The same “tools” we once depended on to feel safe we rely upon, again and again, usually without conscious awareness. If something doesn’t go our way, turns an unexpected corner, we struggle with uncertainty, just as we did when young; we struggle trusting we are safe and that all is well, because when a little one it was often not the case. We struggle, and so we worry.
The default worrisome child of 1973 takes over the rational adult of today and reminds her of all the reasons she is not safe in this moment; that she’d better prepare, consider all the what-if’s, the worst case scenarios. She’d better be ready. Something bad is likely to happen.
A traumatic neurobiology cannot distinguish between past and present. It operates as if it’s still under threat. It lives under the assumption that uncertainty means trouble, no response from a friend means abandonment, conflict means devastation, an error in judgment means punishment, a noise around the corner means pain. Variations of these themes were true as a child, and, because of existing trauma patterning, they are true today. Through this lens of danger-beware we see, predict and respond to the world.
Due to adverse childhood experiences, as a boy I took on the core belief of I am wrong. (Read more here). From this belief the fear of punishment was born. If I am/do wrong, I’ll be punished. In my life, I’ve spent many hours worrying that friends would dump me or my business would collapse as punishment for various errors in judgment. (For most my life I never linked my worries to punishment; it’s only been in recent years as I’ve dug deeper into my past.) My reactions inside to very human mistakes have been highly irrational. Just like a four year old.
My mind has catastrophized thinking the absolute worst would happen. I have obsessed about the worst case scenarios because of another core belief I uncovered in my decades of inner work—I am the worst. When we believe ourselves to be the worst, wouldn’t it make sense that we’d believe that we’d attract the worst? That we’d be punished? Again, this isn’t rational; nor does it compute on a conscious level, but deep in the shadows, in the implicit.
Starting as a young boy, to compensate and mitigate punishment, I sought to do things perfect. I sought to do right, the opposite of wrong. If I didn’t execute on right, which is inevitable as a mistake-prone human, not only did I fear punishment from others, but even God. Yes, my fears were projected onto God! God would make my life very difficult by bringing this harsh situation to me, withholding that valuable thing from me, etc. (Hence the vengeful, controlling, neurotic God of religion. You can now guess more accurately where that God comes from.)
I’ve come to see in my personal and professional experience that certain situations activate worry more than others, situations that carry the same themes as decades earlier, such as abandonment, rejection, physical violence, loss, isolation, and pain. For me, due to particular difficult childhood experiences, it’s often been abandonment and loss. To the extent that these themes were frequent, intense and unresolved in earlier times, especially in the formative years, we are prone to fear-based sensitivities and reactions. We are prone to worry.
Despite what I’ve written, worry is not all bad. There is a plus side. It invites us to enter our compassionate heart and connect to the younger, scared child in us trying to cope and survive. Through worry we come to understand ourselves better, and life; and, by extension, we can understand and offer compassion to others more easily. As our heart widens, we can see how much worry is our biophysiology’s intelligent, rationally irrational attempt to mitigate negative possibilities. If only I can consider all the what-if’s, if I can prepare for all the possibilities, I’ll lessen the likelihood of abandonment / violence / loss happening; or, I’ll limit it’s impact if it does occur. Through our compassionate heart we can see how worry has, for decades, acted like armour protecting us against the blow of the unexpected (and familiar) in childhood. If we can see worry this way, we can learn to soften our system and help others do the same.
Which brings me back to courage. It takes a level of bravery to look worry directly in the eye, not take it literally, but rather symbolically, and surrender the control that worry seemingly promises. It takes courage to soften to such an extent that you trust you are safe, you are okay, and that you will be just fine, even if what you worry about actually happens.
It takes courage because the strong, scared, preoccupied, wired-for-threat voice is convincing (despite the fact that most of what we obsess over rarely manifests). Entertaining the idea that there is nothing to worry about can literally incite worry to shout, “You NEED to worry. If you don’t worry, WATCH OUT! You’ll be blind-sided. You won’t be prepared!” Really, what it communicates is that, on a deep, primal level, we can’t survive without that toxic fear. It shows us how afraid we are to live without fear. Our survival depends on it… at least it did. That’s how scared we were. That’s why courage is needed.
And so it takes a bold heart to offer ourselves to the unknown willingly, knowing that we, as our adult self, can handle anything that comes our way. That we are resourceful enough now to do so. We weren’t as children, and thus needed a busy, fretting mind to make sense of things. But that was then and this is now.
So, in closing, in the face of worry, I suggest you breathe in and remember, it’s likely not about today, but rather yesterday. It’s a memory; what you worry about today is symbolically provoking old implicit fear-based childhood themes. (It’s very helpful to know what your themes are; ie, I’ll be punished.)
If it helps, I strongly recommend you practice re-parenting your inner child. Spend some good, quality, patient, loving time being with the young, scared one in you, giving her what she didn’t get and desperately needed from her primary attachment figures. Movement, dance, drumming, singing, journalling, along with various forms of professional healing work, all assist in regulating the system and calming the mind.
I wish you well on your journey of calm and trust.
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Well, actually, I’m not done yet!
A specific tool I offer you is exaggeration. When the worry begins to take residence in your mind, instead of letting it take over, consciously take over the thoughts. Think of the worst case scenario of what could happen. “She hasn’t phoned me back because I must have annoyed her. And now she wants nothing to do with me. She’s going to tell all her friends how bad a person I am and I’m going to be left alone, forever!”
Repeat where necessary. With keen self-awareness, catch the thoughts before they run through you.
Word of caution: Exaggeration can unlock or lead us to the deeper wound giving rise to the worry. Once after exaggerating my persistent thoughts, I suddenly heard a whimper inside me. It was my inner child, clear as day, scared. The child who felt unbearably alone, afraid something bad might happen, fearful of being wrong… worried.
If you hear that little voice, turn towards it and give your inner child your calm presence and these 3 magical sentences. Re-parent the younger part of you with patience and, if welcomed, soothing touch.
Again, please be careful. Exaggeration is amplification. And the wound can be quite painful.
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After holding my inner child and sharing plenty of reassuring words, I said, “Hey, do you want to play?!” And with enthusiasm, we leaped into hide-and-seek!
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Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults