Worry, attachment, over-identification or anxiety; whatever you call it we all do it or have it. Worry is something we all need, it’s what allows us to get the critical work done, to keep ourselves and our loved ones safe and makes up a part of our conscience, keeping us our best self. But worry and anxiety are also energy sucking, joy-killing, life limiters when they are running the show. Can you tell the difference between healthy and unhealthy worry?
Here is what healthy worry sounds like; “Oh, I’d better make sure I submit that report on time!”. And this is what unhealthy worry sounds like; “Oh, I’d better make sure I submit that report on time!”. See the difference? This is what makes it hard to understand when our worry is helping us, and when it is not. Worry has a couple of “friends” that turn a fleeting thought into fear. The first is imagination. A thought can come and go like clouds in the sky, impermanent. However, if there is something about a thought that triggers our mind to start thinking, our imagination can take that thought and turn it into something else entirely; “Oh, I’d better make sure I submit that report on time! I don’t want to end up laid off from work like Sally, and everyone knows she was often late with her work. I can’t be out of a job right now, what would happen to my Mom? She depends on me to buy her groceries…” All of us have fleeting thoughts our imaginations take into whole new directions, creating fear and anxiety.
The second “friend” that tags along with worry is rigidity. Rigidity takes those hyper-activated thoughts our imagination just handed us and makes them a call to action. You stay really late at work, hoping to get everything done (so you won’t be a target for lay off). Perfectionism, vigilance, judgment, or a fixation on one particular outcome are all versions of rigidity, because your imagination just sold you a story you are desperate to keep from happening. We’ve all been there, imagining the worst possible ending, getting up in the middle of the night to check on an e-mail or spreadsheet we submitted, and are now second guessing (“Was my tone too harsh? Did I get those figures right?”).
If you have overwhelming amounts of anxiety in your life, please consult a qualified health care provider to help you. Relief can begin by making the call for that appointment (my true story based on real events). For the everyday items there are things we can do to keep worry from robbing us of well-being. The first step is to recognize when your imagination has taken off with a thought; sometimes you can catch this in the act (preoccupation, clenched jaw, headache, etc.) and sometimes you see it after the fact. When you see it, take it out for a cup of coffee. Take worry out of your mind and sit it down like it is a person, have a conversation with it. In doing this (making it something you relate to outside of yourself) you are much more able to see it objectively, to ask questions and to become more compassionate with it and yourself. Then, you are more able to accurately see the difference between healthy and unhealthy worry and do something constructive with it.
“Worry does not empty tomorrow of its sorrow; it empties today of its strength.” ~ Corrie ten Boom
Photo courtesy of Alexandru Zbrobau
Lately I’ve been thinking about my mental “junk drawer”. The place I put the things I don’t want others to see…things I don’t really want to look at either (but I can’t quite let go of…). I’ve decided it’s a junk drawer because the stuff in there is so closely aligned with the contents of the actual junk drawer in my house. Batteries that need to be recharged…but I can’t find what we’ve done with the charger (that thing I do where I make myself small around some people), keys with no locks (persistent behaviours I want to stop but don’t know how), bits and bobs that will be useful someday…but not today. And not without a lot of inconvenient effort.
The thing to remember about these items is each and every one of them has a story attached to it, just like the physical junk in that one drawer we all have in our homes. It’s easy in the moment to justify why I made myself “small” around someone; I tell myself they wouldn’t have taken lightly any challenge to their thinking, or that it wasn’t worth disrupting them, or…but that is not the story that particular item is telling. If I look at it objectively, setting that example apart from me in an act of observance, it is the story of a lack of confidence in myself. A lack of confidence in my ability to skillfully pose an alternate way forward, or influence another person’s thinking. Author Rebecca Solnit calls these “ambient stories”. An apt description as they are ever-present and influence our way of being in certain situations; sometimes we know we are doing “that thing again” and sometimes we can only see it when looking back.
In Solnit’s words; “Stories surround us like air; we breathe them in, we breathe them out. The art of being fully conscious in personal life means seeing the stories and become their teller, rather than letting them be the unseen forces that tell you what to do.” Her words highlight that we need to pay attention to this mental junk drawer and the stories we tell ourselves when we tuck something away in there, a lot of rationalizing goes into that mental drawer. Lessons from the actual household junk drawer – drawers can only hold so much before they start spilling out their contents, and they always do that at the most inconvenient time. So it is with our mental junk as well. Reaction (rather than response), unwanted tears, passive aggressive behavior, shutting down or a desperate need to “numb out” (with food, TV, alcohol, etc.) are all signs your mental drawer can handle no more junk. What to do? Recognize what is needed; time to look in that drawer with compassion and curiosity, and do some “cleaning”.
Looking at the items we don’t want to see about ourselves, or admitting a context in which we are living (at home or at work) is no longer working for us is emotionally exhausting work, but it is valuable work. Only within the act of bearing witness can we see what is needed to break free of these stories, of the mental junk that otherwise holds us trapped in a repetitive cycle that does nothing for us but cause suffering. Start gently, start by recognizing when you have put something in there, and witness the story it is telling. As Solnit says “It’s powerful, honorable, profoundly necessary work when it is done with passion and independence and guts.” If you’ve ever cleaned out the junk drawer at home you know how deeply satisfying it can be to have room in that drawer, to see all the contents. And much like cleaning out the physical drawer where things will remain (the goal is not an empty “drawer”), you don’t have to act on everything in the mental one either, only enough to give yourself room to breathe.
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Ever received “constructive” criticism? It doesn’t usually feel very good, and you probably remember the last occasion when you received constructive criticism. On the flip side, have you received a compliment on your work lately? Now, hold in your mind the way you felt when you received constructive criticism…name one emotion you feel as you bring it to mind. Do the same with the compliment; what emotions arise for you as you consider the compliment you received (name one)?
For most of us, the weight of the constructive criticism will far out-strip any lift we gain from a compliment…assuming we remember a compliment we received recently (and that we actually owned it or took it seriously). Why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we let the negative feelings drag us down, but not necessarily let the positive feelings hold us up? I don’t know about you but for a positive event to make me feel better just after I’ve received constructive criticism, it would have to be on an order of magnitude with winning the lottery.
Science teaches us that our emotions are electrochemical signals released in our brains, and that these chemicals produce feelings that last for about six seconds (if you would like to read more on this please find it here). These feelings are designed to move us to action, so in a case where we are feeling shame, vulnerability, embarrassment or failure we continually produce electrochemical signals that make us feel bad, and on and on it goes, until another life experience knocks us off the cycle (or we manage the cycle ourselves). What this means is we have a tendency to perpetuate negative feelings, re-live them or refresh them. We beautiful human beings don’t tend to do this as often with our positive feelings and memories.
In a world where we in fact get as many items of constructive criticism as we do compliments (probability theory) then it stands to reason we should have the opportunity for balance and equilibrium in our days. When it doesn’t seem like that is the case we are falling prey to “conjunction fallacy” (a part of probability theory), which is the bias that given two statements most people will assume the first statement is always true (as in the choice between “my work is bad” and “my work is good”); on the days when you are continually flogging yourself with shame, guess which of those statements is always up first (I can find fault with myself during my morning shower without trying really hard…)?
“Our minds influence the key activity of the brain, which then influences everything; perception, cognition, thoughts and feelings, personal relationships; they're all a projection of you. ~ Deepak Chopra
What this highlights is it is up to each of us to see ourselves objectively. It’s up to us to balance the equation by taking in both the positive and negative and give them equal weight (owning that compliment, not just brushing it off). If we don’t do this for ourselves, no one else will either.
Having a sense of significance in our lives is important to our balance and well-being. Our internal guidance system is complex, but it ultimately comes down to the choices we make, and there is a fundamental logic to these choices. As beautiful human beings we choose to engage in activities that we know we are skilled in (often things we can do well or that bring us joy). We choose to engage in ways that make us feel good about ourselves, that hold value. We choose to do things that support our loved ones, our team and sometimes our community. We choose to action things that we have a measure of autonomy over, allowing us to execute on them in a felt or complete way.
When we have no choice, we can derive little joy out of what we are engaged in. That is not to say that throughout a day we will each only get to engage in things that make us happy, there is always a measure of “have to do”, in accomplishing those things that feed our sense of significance to enact our values. As an example, accounting, expenses and taxes hold very little joy for me but they are significant to me and I engage in them regularly and with purpose because they are key to enabling me to continue doing what I love to do for a living.
Meaning then is comprised of choices (large and small) that are based on our sense of self, our values, principles and awareness of what we enjoy doing (and why we enjoy it) and how it touches others. It’s often assumed that happiness is the needed focus in life – if we are happy then everything else falls into place. But happiness is fleeting, for many of us it is often conditional (we can only access it when certain conditions are present, or absent). Our relationship with meaning is quite different then the one we have with happiness; we recognize upfront there is work involved, that having meaning present in work and life isn’t a given (or an entitlement), but it is in our control to increase, and if we want what we do to be meaningful we need to look beyond our own needs and wants.
The wisest words that I could find on meaning were from Joseph Campbell; “Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer.”
Go bring your meaning to life.
Photo by Miguel Bruna on Unsplash
I have a confession to make; I am not a very confident person. This may shock anyone who knows me because “confident” is a word that is often associated with me/my work. That is not to say that I am never confident, I have my moments, but more often then not the thing that has me putting myself out into the world is courage. I have not always done this skillfully. Lack of confidence creates unevenness in performance, and courage (when it is your only “tool”) can have you persevere in something without objectivity; this was (at times) pervasive in my work and life. Feeling secure allows you to be more relaxed and open to what is needed, to what is being called for…more adaptable. To relax into what you do you need to know the difference between courage and confidence. Just to make this even more complicated, your work will look the same whether it is genuine (confidence), or a mask (courage); as confusing for you as it is for those around you (“You say you love your work! Why are you so tired all the time?”).
Courage is something I am also profoundly grateful for, because without it I would never have pursued anything meaningful in my life. I would not have completed the various iterations of education that gave me the “entrance ticket” to what I am able to do as a professional today. Without courage I would be the pleasant, but deeply unhappy, person who unsettled you at work…the person whose smile never reached her eyes. Courage is the reason I have been successful as a career professional, putting new ideas and concepts “on the table” for consideration, making a difference to the organizations and individuals I serve. Courage had me leave a comfortable profession to pursue something risky, becoming a Career Coach and an entrepreneur (all at the same time, which is not the most rational thing I’ve done) allowing me to deepen the positive impact I now have on others. Courage did that, not confidence.
What I now understand from my own journey is courage will get you “out the door”, but it alone won’t allow you to be successful (you may win a battle, but lose a war, so to speak…the war with your inner critic, your health, your well-being). I have seen this many times in myself, in my clients and in my work in organizations; the person whose stellar performance gets them promoted into the next level, only to find themselves without the skills (ready to hand) to feel good about who they are in their new role. Courage can be a bridge, the key ingredient in “fake it until you make it”, but no one stays in a place for long where they are running on courage alone; courage is not enough to provide well-being, or meaning, in our work. Relying on courage alone is the path to burnout.
So, how do we balance these integral elements of courage and confidence in our working lives? Here is the valuable lesson I have learned. If you are using courage to do something, you are already enough. No one uses courage to do something they don’t know how to do; as beautiful human beings we use courage to enable us to do things we feel motivated and able to do, but where we may lack a complete belief in our selves. Courage and confidence are two sides of one coin…the coin of ability. You are enough. You wouldn’t be where you are, doing what you do, if you were not already enough. Look at what you accomplish, look at how you make a meaningful difference to others. You may not be exactly where you want to be yet, but you are on your way and both courage and confidence will pave the path to get there. Use them in tandem to continue AND enjoy your journey. Tap into your confidence, it is right there; in fact it has been quietly supporting you all along.