Worry is self-defeating and ruins happiness

Mother and child sitting on the beach

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

All her life, Sarah confused worry with problem-solving. Now, we’ll find out how self-defeating her beliefs about worry were. So if you believe there are benefits to worry, think again.

We first met Sarah when we learned that she saw worrying as helpful. Let’s look at her beliefs about worry in a bit more detail. 

Belief 1: If I don’t worry, no-one else will

Sarah believed that she had to worry to prevent possible problems from happening. She also believed her husband Rick was oblivious to dangers in the world, because he didn’t worry. That meant she couldn’t trust him to keep her family safe.

So in Sarah’s eyes, she had total responsibility to make sure nothing bad happened. To ensure this, she worried endlessly about everything that could go wrong.  

However, Sarah didn’t understand that Rick could predict problems as well as she could. He just didn’t see any point in worrying about them.

Instead he chose to problem-solve.

Rick worked out which problems were likely to happen. Then he took planned action to stop or reduce their impact.

He was far more effective behind the scenes than Sarah, who never actually took any action. But because she didn’t see him worry, she thought he avoided the issues.

Belief 2: You’re irresponsible if you don’t worry

Sarah’s underlying belief was that people “should” worry. It was their duty to themselves and their loved ones.

So she thought Rick’s refusal to worry was irresponsible, and showed a lack of seriousness. She also felt burdened and resentful that she had to worry about the family alone.

However as mentioned above, Rick was indeed responsible. He just took effective, preventative action quietly, without fuss. But his good work was overshadowed by Sarah’s worrying.

She never recognised that it was his actions, more than her worrying, that kept the family on an even keel.

Belief 3: Worrying shows I care

Sarah believed she had the sole burden of protecting her family. But in a way, this also gave her a great deal of satisfaction.

How else could she show her love and care for her children? They were her life; what more could she do for them?

She also thought that if she worried about others, they’d see her as more conscientious and caring.  

Where’s the evidence?

Unfortunately her family saw her worrying as irritating and fussy. Her tight control of what they did felt annoying at times.

Even though she did this from the best of motives, it inhibited their freedom and sense of happiness. And Sarah’s friends soon realised she couldn’t put her fears into perspective.

So all that worry was self-defeating. Others found Sarah’s worry habit tiresome, rather than caring.    

Belief 4: Worry helps my children cope 

Sarah’s children only ever saw her cope with problems by worrying. They never saw her solving problems effectively. And she never taught them these skills either. 

So when they faced problems as they grew older, her children copied Sarah’s example. They worried a lot, thinking that was the only way you dealt with problems. But they soon found this didn’t work. Nothing improved.  

Because worrying doesn’t solve problems.

It just distracts worriers by making them think they’re doing something. In fact, all the activity is in their heads, not in the real world.

It took Sarah’s children a long time to learn better ways of coping with their problems, and find contentment.

So worrying didn’t help Sarah’s children cope with the world. Quite the reverse – it stopped them developing resilience.

So in the end, her worry was self-defeating. It brought about the very situations she was most worried about in the first place. 

Belief 5: Worrying protects health and welfare

Sarah believed that by worrying, she prevented her children having problems with their emotional or physical health.

However, Sarah’s children knew her tendency to panic at the slightest problem. So they avoided telling her anything that would worry her.

Even when Jay, her elder son, was bullied in primary school, he kept quiet. Sadly, he lost confidence over time, and became anxious himself. Although he’s improved now, for a long time he was reluctant to pursue new jobs out of a fear he’d fail.

And Sarah’s daughter Katie still worries that she’s ill. These health worries sometimes consume all her waking moments. Naturally, work and relationships take a backseat until she can calm herself down. 

And yet, there’s never any concrete evidence that she’s actually sick.

Sarah was stunned when she found about Jay’s and Katie’s issues. She’d been completely unaware that they’d been struggling all through their teens. But she was always so preoccupied with her own fears, she couldn’t see theirs.

And in effect, they protected her by not saying anything. It was as if Sarah were the child, and they were the adults.

Of course, it should have been the other way round. Sarah should have been giving them guidance and help. 

None of Sarah’s children have reached anywhere near their full potential yet. So did Sarah’s worrying really protect her children’s health and well-being?

It doesn’t seem so. However, she still can’t see how self-defeating her worry habit has been. 

Sarah’s justification for worry

In fact, in Sarah’s mind, her children’s problems reinforced the idea that she was right to worry. After all, here was proof that problems were lurking all the time. And if she hadn’t worried so much, her children could have suffered so much more.

Thus, her belief in the benefits of worry were made stronger. At the same time, she was oblivious that she’d missed what was happening in front of her eyes.

Belief 6: Worrying prevents problems

Sarah was largely unaware how children develop self-identity, autonomy and mastery. And she assumed her children wouldn’t cope if they faced problems. So she decided she had to protect them from anything even mildly unpleasant. 

With encouragement, however, her children may have been more resilient than she was. And if they weren’t, they could have learned resilience and problem-solving skills.

Ideally, Sarah would have started to let her children make their own choices and mistakes as they grew older. Then she could have helped them learn to manage the results. She could have taught them how to solve problems, by looking at the pros and cons of all their options.

But unfortunately, Sarah couldn’t tolerate the worry of seeing her kids branching out. She didn’t want them to try new identities or pursuits, ways of living, career paths, or even new places to live.

Avoidance stifles growth

Sarah’s anxiety didn’t allow her to let her children learn these valuable life skills. 

Out of the best intention, Sarah wrapped her children up in a cocoon. But that just kept them from experiencing what the world was really like. And it didn’t prepare them to cope with future problems.

So they never learned you can make mistakes – without the world ending.

They didn’t learn that most discomfort, hurt or sadness passes. They didn’t learn they could recover, resume their activities, and get on with life. 

Instead, Sarah’s over-protectiveness ensured they didn’t have the skills they needed to cope. And that was exactly the reverse of what she wanted.

So her worry was self-defeating. It didn’t help her children become resilient or learn to cope with life’s difficulties. 

A more helpful approach would have been to view problems as challenges to solve or work around.

No-one lives problem-free

Sarah always saw possible problems as disasters that should be eradicated. 

Of course this is impossible.

A more realistic mindset is to accept that no-one lives life problem-free. Everyone is faced at various stages by tragedy, sadness, failure and loss. No-one is immune to the disruption and emotional pain that problems cause. Not even the rich, famous, intelligent or skilled.

And apart from major issues, we all have numerous tedious hassles, every day of the year. To hope for a life without problems is totally unrealistic.

Be realistic

Things will always go wrong somehow, somewhere. No-one can plan for every single thing that will ever happen. There will always be something you’ve overlooked. Or factors that are completely out of your control.

But Sarah wasn’t able to accept this basic fact of reality. 

Put worries into perspective

At best, worry is sign that something may be wrong (but probably isn’t).

Most things you worry about will never happen anyway. Or they won’t be half as bad as you expect.

Occasionally the situation will turn out to be reasonably serious. And even then, you can usually work out some way to manage what’s happened. 

But these were the skills that Sarah never learned.

Apart from worrying, she didn’t know how to plan to prevent negative things happening. Or how to deal with difficult situations that came up unexpectedly. 

And so during the Covid epidemic, she would have struggled to adapt to the changing risks as various mutations appeared. Her lack of problem-solving ability would have stopped her from taking the necessary steps to ensure that she and her family were as well-protected as they could be

Sarah never realised that worrying nonstop doesn’t solve anything.

Where’s the evidence?

So if you’re a worrier, make the decision to stop worrying. Collect some information, and decide if there really is an issue first. If not, get on with your life in a more positive way.

If there is an issue, manage your emotional reactions about the problem. Accept and acknowledge you’re stressed, disappointed, fearful, jealous or angry.

After you’ve allowed these feeling to recede, work to solve the problem itself. Over time, your level of happiness and contentment can increase, if you take appropriate action.  

Once your plans are made, you can stop thinking about those issues until it’s necessary. You can also change your plans if needed, depending on circumstances. 

But there’s no need to keep worrying about what might happen, or what has happened. If you’ve done all you can to deal with the issue, you’re covered. Put your plans into action when needed, see how it goes, and change course if it’s not quite right.

But don’t be like Sarah, and destroy your happiness with worry that’s self-defeating.

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