I have a confession: I worry a lot.
I worry a lot about everything. I worry about the big things, like my career and my ethics, whether or not I am making the right decisions for myself, and if I am being the best person I can be to the world. I worry about big, heavy things, like my place in the world as a white queer woman and what that really means. I worry about the smaller things, like if I am getting better at budgeting or if I am getting enough exercise. I worry about intangible things, like God and consequences I cannot foresee. Am I biting my nails too much? Am I saying ‘um’? Did I just make someone sad? Are the reasons I have for the choices I make good enough? Am I good enough?
My worry sometimes feels like an iceberg in that I only show a small portion of it to the world. There is so much more happening under the surface of what I reveal. Some very kind people who know me very well have broken that surface over time, reaching their loving hands down below the waters to hold me when I am a mess about my worry, trying to take some of that weight off of my shoulders. They have shown me that I do not need to keep all of my anxieties bottled up inside, and they have helped me learn important tools to begin to make my anxieties more manageable. I am so enormously grateful for their love, and their patience with me.
I googled for the word ‘worry’ in news and found that we are worried about flooding in Texas, about our kids, about some supernatural game called “Charlie Charlie”, about students needing to make targeted scores, about collapsing fisheries, about Southeast Asian Stocks.
Like damn, world. I was just worried about whether or not I can deal today, but there are so many more pressing things going on. It can be easy to be buried under worry. I feel it.
Though it can feel like I am alone, my rational brain knows that simply isn’t true. Indeed, conversations with my close friends, my parents, my students reveal that we all worry. Scholarly research has been dedicated to understand how and why worry is so prevalent in the modern age, and the word is everywhere. We are all worried. There are tests to tell us if we should worry about our lives, there are listicles about anxious people and self help guides for handling worry and anxiety in our lives. In just one hour my twitter feed has produced more than 700 results for ‘anxiety’ or ‘worry’.
The World Health Organization ranks America as the most anxious country in the world. Anxiety disorders are among the most common mental illness in the U.S, and according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America most of us who suffer from them rarely receive treatment. It is no surprise, too, that the number of people who are worrying is on the rise. According to The ADAA, and the National Institute of mental Health, worry takes a physical toll on your body, causing dizziness, fatigue, headaches nausea, sweating, and trembling. Chronic worry and intense stress can lead to suppression of the immune system, digestive disorders, memory loss, and heart attack.
I can actually worry myself to death.
Which seems so strange because, on the whole, my life is awesome. I have work that keeps me engaged, supplemented with work that allows me to create my own schedule and develop strong management experience. I have a fulfilling and enriching circle of friends. I enjoy a life that does not feature many challenges to my basic survival. I am empowered, I am confident, and I have a better work/life balance than ever. Why have I spent so much of my adult life so worried?
I spent some time today following advice similar to that of fellow TC writer Daniel DiPiazza, who wrote recently about how to begin to strategize what is and is not worth worrying about in his article How to Stop Worrying About Life And Live It. With more than 13k views, it is clear that we want help dealing with our worry. DiPiazza offers a framework of three buckets for sorting through your worries: things that are out of your control, things you can control but are choosing to let go of, and things you can control and you will act on. It would seem that much of the solution to reducing anxiety and stress in your life has to do with, in DiPiazza’s words, hitting the delete button.
I have always been the kind of person who craves rationale, and understanding. I like digging in a bit more than ‘deletion’, and understanding why I am seeking to get rid of particular stressors in order to be deliberate about the choices I make in my life.
After a long, hard look at myself over the last year or so, I have come up with the following things that I should stop worrying about today, and why.
1. Whether or not I am responsible for other people’s emotions
This is a huge one for me, and has been the cause of much of my anxiety recently. I have a habit of ignoring my true feelings about something if I am worried that actions I take because of my feelings might hurt someone I care about. I have spent a lot of time and energy behaving in ways that are mentally and emotionally exhausting because I am worried about making someone else feel bad. I must remind myself that I cannot control someone else’s emotions any more than I can control the weather, and that their reactions to me are their choices, and they can handle them as much as I can (and should) handle my own.
2. What others think of the work I do
I don’t have a traditional work arrangement, nor am I following a prescribed ‘career path’ that many of my colleagues have taken in Urban Planning. I enjoy the work that I do in my field, and I find the work that I do outside of planning to be enriching in different ways. While some of my clients or gigs may not be my ‘ideal’, they offer me the freedom that a more traditional arrangement might not, and I value that flexibility greatly. I am not my job(s), and more importantly, I am not devalued as a result of someone else not approving of them.
3. If I am being the ‘right’ kind of healthy
I have written before about how it is time to let go of elitism in health and wellness, and this is as true of myself as anyone else. I do not need a juice cleanse or lululemon clothing to be ‘healthy’, and my participation in these health fads can sometimes be even more damaging to myself than anything else. There is no right way to do health, and there is no right way to ‘look’ healthy. I must let go of worrying about ‘doing it right’ and instead focus on my actual goals for health: strength of body, clarity of mind (and skin!), and mobility.
4. What others think of the choices I make for myself
People throwing their two cents my way can keep on walking. I have had toxic friendships, romantic relationships, and family members dishing out judgment about the decisions I make (where to go to school, what to study, where to live, how to live, what to eat, how to eat it, and so on) as a way to elevate themselves and their own decisions. While care and concern for my wellbeing are important, and I absolutely trust my friends to call me on really bad choices (let’s be honest, we all make them), I must stop worrying that people approve of the things that make me happy. Where I am not exposing myself to undue risks, the people who love me will respect my decisions and not try to topple me because of them.
5. Whether or not I am good enough for the people in my life
This one is deeply rooted in my fear of abandonment. I have had a hard time letting go of the idea that I need to be worthy of the people in my life. I have wasted so much energy on this worry that I have been downright stunned that people stay in my life not because I take action to be worthy of their company, love, or affection, but because the person that I am at my core already is.
6. If my family approves
I love my family, they are stellar. Sometimes they want to exert a level of control over my life that is unacceptable, and I have worried that failure to meet their expectations means I will somehow lose them (see above fear of abandonment). It is beyond time to accept that my family has opinions, and that I am still responsible for my own happiness first. In the end, those who love me will respect and accept that, loving me for having the strength of character to make my own choices, rather than just doing what they think I should.
These are the worries that are my biggest burdens. I have many more, about what to wear and the right things to say, but in the scope of these bigger weights they seem small and insignificant. These are the dark spaces where I spend too much time fretting about things that distract me from my own happiness and my goals. I have a long road ahead of me, not just of letting go, but of moving through and growing stronger.