Worrying is a habit, being happy is a habit. If you are a worrier, or if you are happy, where did you learn it? These, like all habits, are the results of consistent persistent practice over time. Most habits are learned at an early age through observation. We observe behaviours, usually from our parents or siblings and then we practice.
What you feed grows and what you starve dies
Habits can be either cognitive or affective (emotional); they are what we think or what we feel. Some psychology suggests that we learn the thinking part first and that leads to the negative feelings of worry. Others would suggest that the feelings lead to the negative thoughts. For me, it can be either, though it is usually a mixture of both.
Often we just feel lousy, anxious or concerned but we don’t know what about. Carl Jung described this as ‘something within us yet outside of our control’. When we just feel bad we can search for a reason and attach a negative thought process to make sense of it. Once we have attached the thought to the feeling, to that feeling, they are forever connected so that when we feel it we think it and when we think it we feel it.
Odd as it may seem we can make these associations with the strangest of things it may be a banana or the colour blue, a sound, smell or the tone of someone’s voice. Once we have linked thought and feeling together they have a symbiotic relationship that is there forever until we wake up to what we are doing and uncouple them.
The first step in developing mindfulness to overcome worrying is to become the observer of yourself, so that ‘I’ can observe ‘me’ thinking, feeling or doing. When we observe, we can begin to see the distortions of thinking feeling and doing that create anxiety, worry and stress. Often these are unconscious distortions, that through mindfulness become conscious and then we can deal with them.
So, the first step is learn to observe your distortions…
All-or-nothing thinking – black-or-white – Life or death
Where are the shades of grey? Life is never black and white, there will always be a compromise, a third point of view, another way of doing it. It is only by standing back and observing our thinking and feeling that we can move beyond this fixation.
“It will always be like this…I’ll never be able to…it always happens to me…” I call this scripting. The habit of thinking this way leads to repeated behaviours. Life becomes a done deal. As soon as I make these statements I am ensuring that they will come true and that my life will be forever blighted.
The magic of perception is that we tune it so that we only see what we expect to see. This can be the glass half full or half empty. A clean car, with a patch of dirt, can be seen as filthy, a good person who make a simple mistake can be seen as bad and so on. When you tread in a cow pat do you see that as a good opportunity to grow or do you get angry and beat yourself up? When we focus positively all and every experience teaches us about our self and life. When life is faced positively there is no negative focus.
Discount the positive
This is magical because when we discount the positive we ensure that nothing will ever be any good. We either come up with reasons why positive events don’t count. “I did well, but that was just dumb luck.” or ” I hate it when good things happen because that means that something negative is just around the corner”. Stand back, reframe your thoughts and feeling, create a new script for the situation and say it out loud so that your ears can hear it.
Jumping to conclusions
Even when what is happening is plainly positive we can make negative interpretations without any actual evidence. We can act like a mind reader, “I can tell she secretly hates me.” Or like a fortune teller, “I just know something terrible is going to happen.” “I just know we are going to miss the plane.” Ask yourself the question why? Why should these bad things happen to you and not other people? Most importantly what evidence do you have of things working well?
It is easy to make a drama out of a crisis. Expecting the worst-case scenario to happen. “The pilot said we’re in for some turbulence. The plane’s going to crash!” A classic is a medical diagnosis when we convince ourselve of the worst outcome. In life difficult things will always happen. However, evolution has equipped us with some pretty good creative skills that enable us to solve problems.
This is when the feeling clearly comes before the thought and we seek to make a connection and association between the feeling and the thought. Just like believing that the way we feel reflects reality. “I feel frightened right now. That must mean I’m in real physical danger.” It might even be “he just told me I am a bad person therefore it must be true.” Just because you feel something or someone says something it does not mean that it is true. Being able to observe your feelings and thought associations and questioning them rather than accepting them can lead to new levels of understanding.
‘Should’s and should-nots’
In my consulting room there are certain words that are banned. These are ‘ought, should, must and can’t, together with ought not, should not, must not’. Holding yourself to a strict list of what you should and shouldn’t do is beating yourself up. Often these things are related to what other people want or need and may have little to do with meeting our own needs. It good to look at why you believe these things, what is going on? This is a good time to look at reframing your thoughts and feelings, update them so that they serve you better.
I hate giving people a diagnoses. A diagnosis is a label and once we become labelled we become limited by that label, both in our own eyes and in the eyes of others. My father labelled me as an ‘idiot’ and for many years I believed him. Later, in therapy, I realised that is was his issue and not mine and I relabelled myself to positive ones. Labelling yourself based on mistakes and perceived shortcomings. “I’m a failure; an idiot; a loser,” just creates negative scripts that you will play out in everyday life.
This may also be described as taking other people’s stuff on board so that it becomes ‘my’ issue when it is not. It is when we assume responsibility for things that are outside your control. “It’s my fault my son got in an accident. I should have warned him to drive carefully in the rain.” “It’s my fault he got lung cancer I should have stopped him smoking.”
Worrying comes in many shapes and sizes. Importantly all of the versions described above are all habitual behaviours and like all habits they can be changed. If you follow these blogs or the podcast you will realise that to change a habit permanently normally involves a ninety day programme. All habits can be changed.
When you are a worrier it is a form of obsessive compulsive disorder or OCD. Rumination on anything will make it bigger and bigger. It follows that rumination on positive things will lead to positive feelings and happiness. So…
Don’t worry, be happy.