Recently, my adult son and I experienced some tension in our relationship over decisions he was making that directly affected me. I have to say that we butted heads for some time until I began to think more deeply about my role the dynamic we where creating. Like most parents, I still worry about my child, who long ago stopped being one. Undoubtedly, we all feel justified in our worries. Why else would we bother if there weren’t real problems looming? But I took a step back to assess our relationship and saw that my worrying was having three corrosive effects: it wasn’t doing me any good, it was making my son resentful, and it was diverting my attention from other important matters that rightly belonged to me.
Worrying does little to solve the problem
Sure, a certain (small) amount of worry can help us to prepare for various outcomes, but beyond a bit of advance planning it really is a waste of energy that could be better used elsewhere. It shifts us out of the present, where we could be enjoying everyday pleasures or accomplishing important tasks, into many possible futures, most if not all of which will never come to pass. Worse still, we should all be familiar the ample research that has revealed the negative physical effects of excess worry and anxiety—fatigue, irritability, head and muscle aches, all the way up to immune disorders and heart attacks.
Now, reducing or stopping worrying is easier said than done. And I certainly don’t mean to criticize those suffering from anxiety disorders. But becoming more mindful of my worrying has certainly helped me to reduce it. Even just taking a minute to pause and recognize that I’m worrying has helped me to refocus and become more present. I’ve found that the less I worry about my adult son, the less I have to worry about.
Worrying can negatively affect our relationships
A good friend of mine, in her more unkind moments, refers to her mother as the anxiety sprinkler: she sprays worry in all directions. Many of us probably do our fair share of sprinkling on those around us. We worry about our children, our significant others, our colleagues, and increasingly, as we grow older, our parents. But what happens when we worry about others and it’s apparent to those we are worrying about?
Worrying about others can rob them of their power. When we become hypervigilant regarding their choices—what if you try and fail? what if you don’t try and fail? what if something bad happens? what if, what if, what if?—this can lead the other person to defend themselves from your worry. If you start hearing “don’t worry about me, I’ll be fine” on repeat, your excess worry has probably elicited a defensive reaction. And if your child or your friend or your parent stops telling you about their decisions and the outcomes, it may be that they have done so to avoid your worry or to stop having to defend themselves from it.
When we worry and hover over people, when we attempt to make sure they don’t make mistakes and pick up after them when they do, we may inadvertently help create people who lack self-confidence. How can they trust their own abilities if you don’t? This lack of trust in others can also breed resentment.
In order to reduce the amount of worrying in my life, as a parent, friend, colleague, or daughter, I ask myself, when and how much guidance, support, or coaching should I offer? How much should I let go at the risk of letting them fail? And when they do, what should my response be so that they can learn from their failure, and build the scar tissue that is such a big part of self-confidence?
Worrying can be an avoidance strategy
I’ve come to understand that my worrying about my son was not only having a negative effect on our relationship, but also that worrying can sometimes be a way of distracting myself from problems in my own life. When I spend all that time worrying about others and their potential problems, what am I not paying attention to in my own life? It’s so much easier to worry about things that are beyond our control than it is to tackle our own tough decisions or make difficult life changes. This is surely part of the reason why many of us stay glued to the dramas on display in the nightly news—the political scandals, the militaristic sabre rattling, the crime, the car accidents. So much worry!
The first passage of the Serenity Prayer, by Reinhold Niebuhr, is so well known that it has almost become cliché: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Regardless of whether you turn to a higher power for help, we could all use more courage and wisdom to make these distinctions and act on them. Every time I find myself focusing on others or obsessing a bit about things beyond my power to change, to me it’s an invitation to ask what might I be avoiding in my own life.
By committing to worrying less about my son and his choices, I’ve noticed that our relationship has become much lighter and much more pleasant. We hang out more!
I invite you to consider the effects of worry in your life: what effects is it having on you and others? What might worrying be diverting your attention from? And how might your anxiety be diminished by taking action on those things you can change?