Some days, life can’t seem like it’s a constant battle with one problem after another. So many that we can feel overwhelmed and swamped. Problems with health, paying bills, family issues, work, relationship and so on.
If you were to take a stadium full of people at any major event and listed their current worries, there would be millions of wildly varying concerns. Most won’t come true and many are the result of an overactive mind. Yet some are genuine warnings that if not heeded could bring disaster. So what do we do?
We have to process the worries, yet it can seem overwhelming to do so. I believe that of all the wide range of problems and worries we have, these can be boiled down to fit in one of the three core concerns common to us all.And once we understand what the core concern is, we can address the worry and move on without getting unnecessarily overwhelmed or panicked. So today I want to give you a framework to use to help you process your fears and worries without letting them run away with you.
First though, I’d like to start in a different place.
What Is The Difference Between Positive And Negative Emotions?
Let’s start by thinking about the state of mind we really want to have and contrast this with what we don’t want.
We want to feel good. We want to be creative and open, receptive to seeing new ideas, solutions and opportunities. Yet sometimes we feel bombarded by worries that grab hold of our attention, like a hostage on a runaway train and stop us from feeling as good as we could.
The Surfer experiencing the thrill of riding a wave. A bookworm engrossed in a book she can’t put down. The Musician engrossed in his performance. All of these are experiencing what Mihaly Chikszentmihalyi called the Flow State. The blissful state of mind where we are lost in what we are doing, without conscious thought.
Contrast that with the panicked mind of the person worrying how they’re going to pay their mortgage arrears or the anxious Candidate waiting for their job interview.
Anything that takes our attention beyond ourselves brings out the more adventurous and compassionate aspects of our personality makes us feel better. It calls on us to experience more of life, to challenge ourselves, to grow and to just purely experience life without the usual censoring of worry and concerns.
The happiest moments are generally those that are experienced without conscious thought. Laughing, dancing, playing sport and other light hearted activities. Because once we get thinking we are mostly examining what is happening and crucially how it might affect us. So our thoughts are about physical, emotional and social dangers and how they might impact us.
So our happiest moments are those we experience without conscious thought, but equally we cannot live life without thinking. We do have to consider our responsibilities, weigh up options and make conscious decisions. There are people, such as drug addicts and hedonists who do chase those thought free moments, but frequently the rest of their life resembles a train wreck and so we do not wish to emulate them.
The Key Skill In Life
Therefore the key skill to a happy life is the ability to think productively, manage fear effectively and then let go. We should be able to feel fear, recognise any truth in it, deal with it and then allow it to pass without affecting us unduly. You see, when our attention is free to roam, it excitedly explores outside of us and expands our thinking, takes in more of life, fills us with energy and possibilities. Yet our mind is not free to wonder until we resolve our fears.
Now while thinking is mostly concerned with danger, fear and worry, there is a productive style of thinking, which can be used as a tool to regain our perspective, creativity and positively resolve our worries and let us be free to focus our attention on more interesting matters.
The trouble is that we can often get overwhelmed by so many fears and worries that it becomes overwhelming to sort through them all and so we get lost in the swirl-storm.
I believe there are two styles of thinking in this respect.
Fear Based Worrying
It is where we get stuck in this process that we become trapped in our thoughts and fear grips hold of our attention and squeezes the life and hope right out of us.
When we are focused on danger, our thinking becomes narrower and narrower, until all we can think of is our worst nightmare coming true. And so we lose perspective, our creativity and with it, the ability to think more clearly and so resolve the issue.
We are the children of those of our Ancestors that responded most quickly and aggressively to threats. And so we have a primed and honed fight or flight syndrome that is all too ready to respond to danger. And so without conscious management most of our thinking is fear based.
It is separating the emotion we feel about the problem and dealing with the dynamics of the situation. It is a process of sifting through our thoughts, recognising the dynamics of what is causing the problem, managing our responses, resolving our feelings about the issue and finally letting it go.
However all fears and concerns fall into three broad concerns we have and they become much easier to manage when we use this framework to identify what we are really worried about.
‘Can I survive and prosper?’
One of our greatest fears besides physical threat is the fear of failure and poverty.
Will we end up homeless and wandering the street?
Will we be able to pay our bills?
Will we screw up and lose everything?
This is the category of fears to do with our personal skills and abilities.
Can we cut it?
Are we worthy?
Are we going to screw up?
Will people laugh at us?
The second concern is Do I belong?
We are intensely social animals. Everything happens within a social environment. It matters that we are not rejected or isolated. Pretty much everything we need or want involves others. Other people provide us with a benchmark for how we are doing, support in hard times, attention and intellectual stimulation.
Recognition, acknowledgement, status, sympathy, intellectual stimulation and our sense of how we are doing all come from others. However pretty the Gucci handbag or powerful the Ferrari, its real value lies in having others appreciate it.
This is the group of fears about how we are accepted by others. When we worry what others are thinking of us, whether they love, like or even care about us.
Why is she looking at me like that?
What do they mean by saying that?
Why didn’t I get invited?
The third category of fear is less urgent, but no less important. It is…
Does what I do matter?
Is there any point to this?
Am I wasting my time?
Work is fine, but I’m not contributing to making the world a better place. Should I do something more meaningful?
Many of us fear death. And beyond not being here any more this is about the fear of not having mattered. We need to feel like we matter, that our life has made a difference somewhere. That we have left some mark on the world. Ultimately we need to see our life as having been worthwhile and had some value so that we didn’t merely leave a carbon footprint and squander oxygen.
Life is short. It is our ability to think that distinguishes us. How we think determines the quality of our life. Think deeply and clearly focus on what you want and how to get there. Then stop and just do it.
Let’s not let worries and fears overwhelm and bombard us. Instead, when we feel strong emotion, let us focus on the real fear by asking this question…
Am I afraid I won’t survive,
that I’ll be lonely
or that my life will have been wasted?