A friend told me recently that she wants to resolve in the new year to stop “mining for issues.” I liked her metaphor! She told me that she found herself actually looking for things to be anxious and worried about. Looking back at my clinical experience, I realized that many reasonable people are programmed to be that way. After all, critical thinkers are predisposed to solve problems by anticipating, preventing and resolving a crisis. These are admirable goals. Focus and self-awareness are necessary components of maturity and survival.
We strive to think ahead in order that life in the here and now can be better. But sometimes when otherwise rational people make a plan and see it succeed, it’s difficult for them to leave that mindset and enjoy the results of their planning. So they become anxious for the next problem. Not every moment of life is a crisis! The end-goal of self-responsibility is to live a happy, serene life, free of difficulty. But mindsets can become a habit, and if we disregard that serenity in the here and now, then that otherwise effective planning can create unfocused stress and worry.
Life today is full of problems, but in some ways it’s also more stress-free and tolerable than ever before. The poorest of today live better lives than the richest a couple of centuries ago. Technology and economic growth have brought it all to us, even though most of us don’t realize how good we’ve got it. The bottom line is that life doesn’t have to be about crisis. The worst doesn’t usually happen. Even when it does, if you’re still alive, then your resources, your reasoning and your “wits” can be more than enough to save you. Not to mention the support of those around you, including those you’ve never met who created devices and procedures that can save your life.
Setbacks are temporary. Even major setbacks like the ones we are experiencing now SHOULD be temporary. In spite of the endless urging from our televisions, there’s no reason to shift into a “new normal” of despair, anxiety and terror. Otherwise, what’s the point of avoiding trouble? We’d all be too miserable to care.
Mining for issues makes no sense. Yet subconsciously, that’s what many of us do. Try sending a standing order to your subconscious; one that can coexist with the one that should already be there that says, “Prevent problems. Be ready to spring into action when needed.” The new standing order will modify that one slightly to say, “Oh, while you’re at it, enjoy the moment. Be prepared for the bad, but take the time to savor the good.”
I have a longtime friend who is the head of a large charitable organization. He travels around the world and does all sorts of interesting things – but he never allows himself to enjoy anything in the here and now. Wherever he is, he is constantly talking about and planning for what he’s doing next, while simultaneously conjuring up all the things that could possibly go wrong. It’s sort of sad – he lives a great life and isn’t able to enjoy it fully. A skilled cognitive-behavioral therapist can help with that anxiety and pointless anticipation. Indeed, therapists aren’t mainly for the mentally ill; they can often help smart and productive people develop healthier ways of thinking.
Most changes in thought are easier said than done. Standing orders don’t work on the first try. They have to be sent over and over again. That’s what introspection and perhaps even psychotherapy are all about. A lot of people talk about “balance”. That’s OK, but I prefer to call it integration, i.e., having more than one gearshift controlling the engine of your mind. Though I might be stretching that metaphor a bit, we all need to be able to coast along quietly while still being prepared to mentally swerve and avoid danger.
Don’t mine for issues and possibilities that can cause you stress. They’re going to happen naturally in the course of life. But if you stay as responsible and independent as you can, you can be prepared for the inevitable adversities while still letting yourself live in – and enjoy – the moment.
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