Sunday, January 5, 2014

how not to borrow trouble

One thing I've gotten good at in the last 37 years is borrowing trouble.  Making mountains out of molehills.  Playing the end of the act before the curtain even rises.  I look for every way something could go wrong, every way I could mess something up, and then obsess about it... until it actually happens.  Not because it was inevitable, but because I made it inevitable.

I'm a bit of a Girl Scout; I like to be prepared for every possible outcome.  In my purse at (almost) all times there are bandaids, Advil, Pepto Bismol, silverware, water, tampons, kleenex, even moleskin.  (You never know when a pesky blister is going to sprout!)  And there is something to be said for worrying -- it calms me down to look at all the way things could go wrong, and then to make contingency plans for those alternatives.  I'd rather have the bandaid and not need it than need it and not have it.

But that's only good up until a point.  There is a line where preparedness tips over into obsessiveness.  And I dance on that line like Philippe Petit between the towers.  

So what can you do if you're like me to make sure that your worrying hovers closer to self-soothing than obsessing?

1)  Be aware of your relationship to trouble
Know your tendencies.  And if you don't know your tendencies, observe yourself and ask your friends and family.  (I wouldn't phrase the question as "how obsessive do you think I am?" but rather, "can you think of a time my worrying was destructive rather than constructive?")  Watch your stress levels when you are worrying -- do they get better or worse?  And does worrying bring on more problems?  Ask yourself how your worrying is contributing to the continuation of your problems.  And then see what happens if you take a different tack.

2)  Make sure you can do something about what you're worrying about
There's a saying I love: "If you can do something about it, why worry?  And if you can't do something about it, why worry?"  This gets to the point -- do what you can about what you're worrying about and then let it go.  Accept that you can't plan for everything.  Allow yourself to make mistakes.  And if your worrying isn't leading to productive steps (like stocking your purse with bandaids or knowing an alternative route to get home from that party) drop it.

3)  Practice puppy training for the mind
Almost three years ago, my friend Rebecca wrote a guest post about puppy training for the mind, and it's an enormously valuable tool.  Don't let yourself get away with obsessing.  Make sure you're being productive and not just winding yourself up.
4) Shift from worrying to problem solving
At my old job, people would come to visit me and my fantastic office mate and complain about all their problems.  Then they'd leave, smogging up our office with their obsessions.  After a week or two of this, we told people they were welcome to visit, and even to talk about their problems, but after five minutes they had to shift from complaining to problem solving, or we would ask them to leave.  This is a great rule to have for yourself vis-a-vis worrying.  Set a timer and after the allotted amount of time, go back to step 3 and force yourself to drop it.

5) Allow yourself to make mistakes
Why do I carry bandaids?  Because if I need one, I don't want to spend $3.99 on a box to get just one.  But in the grand scheme of things, is $3.99 going to break me?  Absolutely not.  And is it worth not having to worry about having bandaids for $3.99?  Sure!  It's a perspective shift.  And if you allow yourself to make mistakes, realizing that some mistakes are more deadly than others, then you prepare only for the higher impact mistakes.

I told my team at work the other day that I know we're going to make mistakes, and that's ok.  I just don't want them to be the obvious ones.  I'm willing to stick a bandaid in my purse, but not an ace bandage.  

6)  Choose to roll with it
I recently got a call from my doctor's office telling me that a test I took required me to come back for another test.  Which sent me on a wild spiral of "what ifs," leading me directly to the big one, "what if I die?"  (Talk about playing the end of the act before the curtain rises!)  I talked to friends and family and calmed myself down with their help, and then decided to package up my worry until I could find out more information.  Since there was nothing I could do about it until my doctor called me back (which, for the record, she still has not done!) there was no point riling myself up about it.  It continues to be a choice I make every time the issue comes up; I have to remind myself I'm not going to worry about this right now.  

There's a great song by one of my favorite artists, Sean Hayes, that touches on this.  He says:
"You're always gonna find problems 
That's just the way things are
Now how you choose to deal with them
make problems what they are
make problems what you are"

So what do you do to keep from letting problems be what you are?