Popular psychology offers help to us worriers of the world to “stop the worry train” in its tracks. Instead of merely hand-wringing about the horrors that may await, play out the “what ifs” to their logical conclusion. What if I don’t make a good impression at the meeting? What if I forget to make the call, or send off the card? The theory, of course, is that identifying and dealing conceptually with the worst outcome will free us to prepare and problem solve. Study up for the meeting, or mail the card the next day (none of which is so earth shattering). It’s a lesson I am forced to learn over and over again with our kids. What if you make a mistake on a test, or don’t get picked for the team? My learned adult perspective allows me to opine, with proper adult authority, that better preparation for the test will put the worries at bay, or that when one door closes often one opens to a far more enticing opportunity. Sometimes it all sounds so darn good I worry about why I can’t follow my own sage advice.
Usually, I blame my mom. She was prone to worry, and it’s really quite easy to avoid taking responsibility by instead pointing a finger at the genetic propensity to overthink that she passed down to her daughter. Then, naturally, I must worry whether I am continuing the tradition with our girls (oh, the angst). Sadly, mom’s worry about the worst, including debilitating illness, turned into her final reality. Often I think about how her life may have been different if she knew her worst fears would come true. Ironically, my guess is she’d tell me to live a life less riddled with worry, and filled with more joy, unspoken advice that I genuinely want to take to heart.
Through the years I’ve played the “what if” game in my mind, sometimes with better success than others. Generally, playing out the worst scenarios exposes my worries for what they are — time-sucking contemplations with little redeeming value. On a weekly basis I worry about who will hate what I write. Then, I think about all the stuff I read where I disagree, or roll my eyes, or plain wonder what the author might have been on while typing, and realize that criticism is just part of putting pen to paper.
My sister-in-law recently challenged me to play the what-if game in a whole new way. It was like learning there was an entirely new sport (think pickleball), and I’d been the one missing out. Instead of myopically considering my woe is me circumstances though a series of what-ifs why not project? Like in music, or psychology. What if the dirty look cast may way wasn’t really directed at me, but instead a reflection of the bad news about a family member just delivered to the person whose path I crossed at an inopportune time. What if the friend who didn’t return my text was only mad because she had dropped her phone in the toilet? What if the unreturned phone call had nothing to do with the fact our event would be cancelled, but instead merely meant the manager was on vacation? The possibilities are endless — and in the instances above reflect the actual circumstances. Figuring out all of the good reasons for an unfortunate situation or circumstance is just as freeing as realizing our worst worries probably, fortunately, will not come true. And, if the worst is going to happen then it becomes very, very important to recognize worry has no role in the fix.
So, silly as it may sound (eye-rolling is encouraged about right about here), abandoning the self-centered what-if game in favor or my sister-in-law’s far more freeing version is a shift I’d like to make. Why not?
Cindy Bargell is an attorney and mom who lives outside of Silverthorne with her husband and two daughters, and she is over worrying about whether summer will ever end. She welcomes any comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.