Sunday, August 29, 2010

Some Thoughts about Worrying

"Any time anyone complains of worry, anxiety, depression, fear, hatred, jealousy -- whatever it is -- let him sit back and analyze the cause. If he is really sincere, he will find out that he wanted something for himself. Selfish desire causes all the problems. Do things for the sake of others, not for yourself. That is the simple and practical way to find peace."

Daily meditation for August 19, from "The Golden Present: Daily Inspirational Readings," by Sri Swami Satchidananda (a cherished and much-consulted gift my friend Christine)

"Worry is the fear we manufacture -- it is not authentic. If you choose to worry about something, have at it, but do so knowing it's a choice."

From "The Gift of Fear," by Gavin de Becker (a book recommended by my friend Karen C., which I recently read while at the beach)

I am a life-long worrier. I've been worrying about one thing or another for about as long as I can remember. As I've gotten older, my worrying habit has escalated at times to outright anxiety with an alarming frequency.

The starkest, most troubling manifestation of my worry-turned-anxiety occurred this past June and July, before and during the House-Senate conference on the financial regulatory reform bill. Each chamber's bill was nearly 2000 pages (in legislative text format -- shorter if formatted as a normal Word document), and the conference through which the chambers arrived at identical text lasted about two weeks. I'm convinced that this broke all previous conference committee speed records (by comparison, the last conference on major financial legislation, which involved a much, much shorter bill, took about 3 months).

Needless to say, the staff of the House Financial Services Committee, a group to which I belong, was more than a little busy. I am a perfectionist who prides myself in turning out very precise, well-crafted legal work, and although I wound up doing what I think was a respectable job during the conference, I literally had multiple panic attacks in the course of so doing. And I am someone who previously doubted the existence of panic attacks, so I don't make that claim lightly. Once the conference concluded, I had nightmares for a month about mistakes that I might have made. They started out eerily real -- some of them were barely distinguishable from reality, so much so that I would consult the final conference report first thing the next morning to make sure that I hadn't made the dreamed-about mistake -- and then got more and more outlandish as I started to let the stress of the conference slip away.

After my conference-induced anxiety started to abate, I starting working myself into an almost-as-pitched frenzy about a series of other things -- my health (there were times that I almost seriously convinced myself that I had at least 5 terminal illnesses at any given point), my dog (did his diarrhea mean he was dying?), the house (the water in the basement and a couple handfuls of deteriorating foundation bricks were a sign that the house was going to collapse around me at any moment), etc. I could keep going, but you get the idea. This was pretty bad worrying, even for an accomplished pro such as myself.

To help with this, and some other chronic conditions that I'm tired of having, I finally took the advice of the mighty Reya and sought the help of the person to whom she affectionately refers as "the Sufi acupuncturist." He is as wonderful as Reya describes. In addition to performing acupuncture, he started me on a Chinese herbal tea, which, among other things, has heightened my awareness of what I am doing and why. About the time I started seeing the Sufi acupuncturist, I stumbled across the two quotes at the beginning of this post, which really focused my heightened sense of self-observation on the roots of worry, and how to free myself from them.

I think that de Becker is clearly correct that worrying is a choice, but it is a choice I have made for so long that I didn't previously, or easily, recognize it as such. I took for granted that worrying was an inherent part of who I am. Plus, worrying is a choice that can perniciously reinforce itself. I worried, almost inevitably things turned out just fine, and instead of concluding that the worrying was meaningless and created needless suffering, I instead concluded that things turned out OK because I worried, which then became a really great argument to keep worrying about anything that might be important.

I also think that Swami Satchidananda is correct that worrying, anxiety, and other such conditions are rooted in wanting something for oneself. I think that my particular selfish desire is to be as close as humanly possible to perfect. It's as if I equate the absence of perfection with utter failure, which is the worst thing I can imagine. I therefore live in constant fear of, pardon my language, fucking up, especially when it comes to my work product (I formerly attached this kind of importance to my grades in school). Intellectually I know that we all make mistakes, and that almost none of our errors, individually or collectively, are of the civilization-ending variety. However, I think that I want to have the distinction of at least making a lot fewer errors than most, and I want others to recognize and praise that trait. I hadn't exactly thought of it this way before -- although once I paused to reflect upon it, it suddenly seemed pretty obvious -- but my selfish desire is apparently to have my self-worth validated by the outside world on the basis that I am, if not absolutely perfect, at least a lot better than most. So I worry, excessively, about the consequences of making mistakes, because making mistakes undermines the false premise on which I base my sense of self (those Chinese herbs really are something for clarifying the mind, aren't they?).

So, thinking about worrying and anxiety has been a very interesting and useful process for me, but the real test will be what I choose to do with my newly-found insights. I literally do not know what it feels like to not worry, but I have a feeling that I'm soon going to find out. . . .


Barbara said...

Some of us perfectionists are simply hard-wired to worry. I'm glad you seem to have gotten your latest round under control.

Reya Mellicker said...

I think worry is not a choice. Both of those quotes are so harsh, like wagging fingers. For heaven's sake.

If worry were a choice, who in the world would choose it? I know you wouldn't.

Worry can become a habit, though - it's easy to get stuck in the pattern. Evan would describe it as an imbalance which is much less judgmental than the quotes would lead you to believe.

I'm so happy you are receiving treatment from the mighty Evan. So glad to be a part of your healing team, and a friend and sister as well.

Much love to you!

karen said...

Hi Adrienne! I have just happily discovered you are back... so here I am again - a very sporadic blogger of late, myself. I do hope that your worrying days are soon over.. I know the feeling, being a bit of a worrier person - i tend to worry at night, then the same problems seem to diminish in broad daylight!

Angela said...

Here I am back, too, and happy to have you! Oh my good old pal Adrienne, I hope you will forgive me, but I smiled at your worries! I wish I could laugh them away with you! You are so demanding and harsh towards yourself, I would like to tell you to let go of your super-ambitions! Just come with me on a walk (even virtual) and let`s chat about the world around us, and the clouds, and how easy and beautiful life really is.
No, I am not thoughtless and un-demanding to myself, but I have understood that it leads to nothing if you eat yourself up! You are not even MEANT to be perfect, we are humans, all of us, even you. So stop grinding yourself into the ground for making a few mistakes once in a while (even if only in your dreams). Laugh them away!

e said...

Wishing you well, Adrienne. I appreciate your looking in. Take Care.

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