Worry About What You Can Control

We all struggle with things we can’t control.  I’ve read countless Stoic writers who all come around to the same theory around not worrying about things outside of our control.  I don’t really suffer from this problem, although it creeps in from time to time. It’s hard not to worry about money and bills, which in the case of medical bills, are indeed outside the realm of one’s control. 

But my lovely wife is a chronic worrier.  She worries about everything, and it’s recently driven her to the point of anxiety.  I realize that there are people out there, who can’t just “not worry” about things.  It takes focus and practice to be able to change your mind, and distract yourself from thinking about one subject to thinking about something else. 

While we have a lot of advice on not worrying about the small things in life or things we can’t control, there isn’t a lot of advice on how to do such a thing.  I’ve tried for years to get my wife to try meditation in the hopes that learning to focus one’s mind would help her have the skill to move her focus from a point of worry to anything else. The problem is, it comes from me, and we’re close.  We tend to ignore the advice of those closest to us, especially if it comes in the form of actual advice, or worse, as frequently is the case with me, it comes out as “You should…”   

Show, don’t tell

As I had it explained to me by one of my mentors early on in my sales career, turn to the person who loves you the most in life, and begin each sentence with “You should…” and see how long it takes them to tell you what YOU should do.  So I have violated one of my principle rules for dealing with people.  But again, we ignore all the skills we’ve learned in life when we’re home, don’t we?  Is this the “Cobbler’s Kids Have No Shoes” effect? 

So I have had to teach my wife how to not worry by demonstrating the lack of worry about things on my part.  That was a slow, frustrating process because to others around you, “not worrying” looks a lot like “not caring.”  And to some extent, that’s the mindset you foster, that you just don’t care about the item, it being out of your control, so you don’t think about consequences.  This can very easily lead to an argument if you aren’t careful with your words.  I can’t say that I was always as understanding and clear as I should have been.  I do worry about things.  But as soon as I realize that my worry will not change anything and that the object of my worry is outside my realm of control, I just “let it go.” 

My wife and I have been together for 20 years now.  She just last week asked me how I’m able to not worry about things.  This is what led to this writing.  I think it’s just part of my makeup.  It’s not some revelation I read in Marcus Aurelius’ book, or Epictetus, or any other Stoic champions.  It’s just who I am.  I’m not a worrier. Fortunately for my wife, there’s pharmaceutical help available.  I think she has a mild form of PTSD caused by us having to be evacuated from devastating fires in my area in 2011.  The 30,000-acre fire started in our neighborhood, and we were evacuated for 8 days.  We had 5 minutes to grab whatever we could carry and get out.  It was a trying time.  The impending loss of everything you have built up over 11 years was a horrible thing to worry about for 8 days, that was completely out of your control.  It even got to me.  I couldn’t work because I couldn’t keep my mind off the potential disaster. 

By the grace of God, or whatever might be out there, we were spared.  The fires were 1/8 of a mile from our house and burned for 30 days in the other direction.  Lucky, blessed, whatever you want to call it, we escaped any damage outside of the costs of keeping 8 animals at the vet for 8 days and two hotel rooms for 8 nights, and all the food needed to exist for 8 days for three people.  1600 families weren’t so lucky.  We know a lot of people who lost everything they had.

The experience created a chasm in my wife.  One that I didn’t notice for a year or two.  She got to where she couldn’t drive without getting red-faced and shaken when someone would cut her off, or basically do whatever they do daily.  Another year later, I got her to finally speak to her doctor. That was a year of me saying, “You need to…” until I remembered what a dumb ass I am, and used my big boy words and skills to actually appeal to her that she needed to check this out, it wasn’t natural or normal. 

Some people can’t help but worry

The bottom line is, the advice, “only worry about things you can control” is great advice unless you can’t control your worry.  Better advice would be to learn how to control your mind so that you can eventually distract yourself from those things you don’t control.  This takes guided practice with help from either a professional or good meditation practices.  It takes mental strength that we just don’t teach.  It takes understanding yourself and your fears and motivations. In my experience, people who suffer from worry also suffer from deep-seated fears that they may not have faced as adults.  This isn’t easy by any means.  This whole journey can open up decades-old wounds and end up causing some serious repercussions.  I’d recommend a good therapist to help someone through the issues that pop up.  I know I’m not qualified to deal with helping on this level, that’s not only for sure, but it’s demonstrated and empirical at this point. 

Do yourself a favor – get help

So if you are one who worries about that which you know you shouldn’t, my only advice to you would be:  get some help.  Reach out to someone to help you.  Worry is a horrible thing, and it does not prevent or solve any problem.  It just makes you miserable.  There is help out there, whether in the form of holistic help via meditation and brain training, simple therapy from a true professional, or via medication.  While the last option is my least favorite, it does work.  Ask anyone on Xanax what they worry about. 

If this resonates with you, know that I’m rooting for you.  I’ve watched what worry can do to a vibrant personality.  It’s not pretty, it’s tragic.  I only wish Shakespeare had written a play about worry and it’s devastating effect on the psyche. If left unchecked, it will absolutely ruin the people you love.  Help them, have patience for them, just don’t tell them what they “should do.” 

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