By Will van der Hart
Author of The End of Worry
How we tackle each new year is largely determined by our temperament. The hopeful optimists amongst us rub their hands together and list the challenges that they expect to fulfill. They undoubtedly are undertaking some rigorous resolution to lose 100 pounds or learn Russian within three months. For them the year is an unfolding map to a playground of their design, peppered only with a few solitary disappointments.
For the worried types in our midst the New Year offers a different horizon. Having collapsed, exhausted, across the finish line of the last year, delighted to have made it vaguely intact, the worrier is almost offended by the prospect of having to do it all over again from the beginning. Their anticipation is about what might go wrong and how they might survive it all. The horizon (if they dared look that far) appears strewn with possible disasters. Will my son make his grades or become a drop out? Will my husband’s company fold in these tough times? Will I be able to cope with whatever does happen? Posting a large open canvass up in front of a worrier is terrifying and here is why…
Worriers primarily battle with uncertainly. In fact you could go so far as to say that they are intolerant of uncertainty. Therefore the more unclear or undefined the opportunities in front of them, the more anxious and worried they are likely to become. Worry can be defined as “problem solving applied to non-problems.” Worry feels like it is removing uncertainty, but it actually increases the perception of what could go wrong.
If you are facing the New Year and are struggling with a sense of dread at the uncertainty it presents, here are a few do’s and don’ts:
1) Do allow the feeling of uncertainty to be there: It is a reality. Nobody but God knows the future. This feeling is okay.
2) Don’t try to eradicate uncertainty from your life by using reassurance. The more you ask for it, the more you’ll need it.
3) Do break down the year into chunks and look ahead only to the next noticeable break. If it is January now, try to look only so far as Easter.
4) Do mix your expectations. Sure, some things might go wrong but some things might go right too!
The second real battle the worrier faces is something we call presumed validity. This is the infuriating principle that the human mind finds it easier to predict bad outcomes than good ones. Our brains have been designed to keep us safe. Enjoyment is secondary only to safety. This means that you will believe that the New Year is likely to contain lots of nasty events rather than lots of nice ones.
Think about it this way: If you go to your doctor and he tells you, “A diagnosis is uncertain until further tests can be carried out. It could be nothing or it could be a very serious disease.” How many of us believe it is going to be nothing?
Presumed validity makes sure that we lean toward believing the worst. In certain circumstances this can save our lives; imagine presuming a shark were just a dolphin or a bear were just a moose! However, for worriers presumed validity can make the year unnecessarily miserable.
The temptation again is to collude with the sense that bad things are probably going to happen. Dressing up for a storm in the California sunshine doesn’t make the storm less or more likely, it simply makes the man hot and grumpy. He may be able to say, “At least I am prepared,” but that’s a small joy compared to his self-inflicted suffering.
So how can worriers overcome their leaning to predict that bad outcomes are likely:
1) Re-engage with uncertainty. Good outcomes are as likely as bad ones.
2) Ask yourself what you believe. Luck will give you 50/50 on bad outcomes. God however, loves you like a father. Bad things may still happen, but he has your future in his hands.
3) When you are worrying about the future, take an insightful stance. Say things like, “I am designed to believe bad things are likely to happen, so this is a product of my mind not my reality.”
4) Live life today. Jesus said that “tomorrow has enough worries of its own.” (Matthew 6:34). Try to focus your mind down on this moment and give thanks for the now.
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