A Word about Worrying: Preparation

by Suzanne Manser, PhD

Worry: to allow one’s mind to dwell on potential future difficulty or troubles (i.e., pain). There are many ways to worry and many kinds of worriers. Today I’m addressing my people: the mental preparers. We are a vigilant and a disciplined people. We have decided that mental preparation is our best defense against potential pain.

There are at least three types of mental preparers. A person can be more than one type:

1. Preparers who rehearse feeling pain. We prepare for potential pain by intentionally imagining, over and over, what it would feel like if the “worst” thing happened. We believe we are softening the blow by repeatedly imagining how awful it will feel whenever – if ever – the worst thing happens.

An example is a person who worries that their spouse could be cheating, and deliberately imagines how it will feel when the spouse finally reveals the news that they’ve found someone better. Over and over and over. Some of us spend a lot of time feeling pain about something that hasn’t happened in hopes that it will lessen future pain. Because this was me for the first half of my life, I can say it: that’s some screwy logic. We’ll get back to that.

2. Preparers who rehearse how to escape pain. Some of us spend hours – usually in the middle of the night – planning escape routes for every possible natural disaster, end-of-the-world, or burglar scenario (I could tell you the fastest way out of the house from every room when I was a kid, and exactly where I would run once I got outside.). Some spend hours planning what exactly to do if their airplane goes down, or if they accidentally drive into a lake. Some spend many hours planning how they would survive if they got laid off when they are in no danger of being laid off. We are the folks who are going to make sure that we have every chance of making it out of disaster, so stick with us!

3. Preparers who rehearse to avoid feeling the pain of not being good enough. We are the perfectionists. We prepare and practice over and over and over to avoid the pain that comes with not being perfect.

If you don’t happen to be a perfectionist, let me tell you unequivocally – the emotional pain of not being perfect is real. Perfectionists believe that if we do things “perfectly” we will not be at risk of being rejected or being exposed as “stupid” or some other flavor of “not good enough.” We believe that we are unworthy unless we are perfect (perfectionists tend to be a tad all-or-nothing in our thinking). No pressure.

There are all kinds of perfectionists. There are academic perfectionists who feel unworthy if they are not getting all A+s. There are people who believe they have to be the perfect partner to “deserve” their relationship. There are body perfectionists (enough said). There are general perfectionists, who have to be perfect at everything to feel valid as a human. To name a few.

We preparers constantly see a meteor on the horizon, whether it is headed for our marriage, the security of our job, or our sense of worth as a human. Preparing makes us feel like we are doing something about it. We earnestly believe that if we just prepare enough, we can avoid the pain that accompanies the meteor crash.

There are useful ways to manage pain when it happens. These three are not any of them. The problem, in each case, is the focus of the preparation.

Quick primer on the importance of focus: When you focus your attention on something, the brain grows neural networks that support your focus on that thing. The more you focus on a thing, more of your brain becomes devoted to that thing. That’s helpful if it’s a positive thing. Not so helpful if it’s a negative thing.

Think of it this way: When your thoughts are focused on apples, the brain builds a road for thoughts about apples. The more often you focus on apples, the more often the brain works on the apple road, widening and paving it, making it more inviting for your thoughts to get onto it. The more inviting the road, the more likely your thoughts will wander over there when you’re not paying attention. Eventually, it becomes difficult for you to get your thoughts to go on other non-apple roads, even when you’re trying. So pay attention to what you are actually focusing on.

In the case of the folks who rehearse feeling potential pain, the focus is on the awfulness of the pain. The person imagines the awfulness of the pain over and over. This focus leads to a nice big road for all thoughts about the awfulness of the potential pain. Once the road is established, it invites even more of those thoughts. If you build it, they will come. In other words, this type of mental preparation literally trains our brain to be more anxious about the thing that we’re trying to make less painful. Oops.

In the case of the escape-route planners, the focus is on the intense immediacy of “SH*T IS GOING DOWN AND I HAVE TO SAVE MY LIFE!!!” When you are planning your escape from the theoretical gun-toting burglars who just entered your living-room window, your heart is beating out of your chest (spoken from personal experience). In your mind, the burglars are there. You are in fight-or-flight mode. You are not focused on the relief of the air-tight escape route. You are focused on the adrenaline-filled escape itself. This widens the mental road about “SH*T IS GOING DOWN AND I HAVE TO SAVE MY LIFE!!!” Reinforcing that road, as you may guess, increases anxiety.

In the case of the perfectionists, focusing with such a white-knuckle grip on the goal of perfection reinforces the belief that any other outcome (i.e., less than perfect) is unacceptable. The way perfectionists focus on the goal of perfection is important to understand – perfectionists aren’t thinking, “I’ll go for perfect, but it’s cool if I don’t get there.” Perfectionists are thinking, “I must be perfect or I will be a complete failure.” We focus on the awfulness of failure, not on the worthiness that we believe to be awarded with perfection. This focus leads to a wide, well-paved superhighway that supports thoughts about us being a failure. Oh, and perfection is unattainable, so there are loads of opportunities for these thoughts to show up, if that is how your brain is oriented.

The bottom line: pay attention to what you are actually focusing on. Preparers generally believe we are focusing on solutions. We don’t realize that our “solutions” are stoking the anxiety.

If you identify as a preparer, take a moment to think about how much time you actually spend preparing in the ways I’ve described. How much time are you putting into reinforcing your anxiety? What else could you focus on during that time that would widen more helpful roads?

Write a list of what you could think about or do during that same time period that could help you feel good, meaningful, and/or __________ (fill in the blank with how you want to feel. “No pain” is not an option.). Anytime you notice yourself preparing, move the focus away from the awfulness of potential pain and put it somewhere that can do you some good. Harness your talent for vigilance and discipline to start using your thoughts more wisely.

The mental preparation described here is well-intended but misdirected. At best, it prevents you from focusing on more useful pursuits. At worst, it increases your current pain and the likelihood that your thoughts will become increasingly focused on that pain. It’s a lose-lose situation, but we are so focused on the preparing and the pain that we don’t pay attention to the outcome. Once you notice the rock and the hard place that you’ve put yourself between, you may choose a different path.