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.

Let’s look at Sarah’s beliefs about worry. We met her first in this article.

Belief 1: If Sarah didn’t worry, no-one else would

Sarah believed her husband Rick was oblivious to dangers in the world. She couldn’t trust him to keep her family safe. So she took on this responsibility herself.

However, Sarah didn’t understand Rick could predict problems as well as she could. He just didn’t waste any effort 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. Behind the scenes, he was far more effective than Sarah. 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.

Belief 3: Worrying showed Sarah cared

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 others saw her as conscientious and caring because of her worrying.

But was this true?

Unfortunately her family saw her worries 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 friends soon realised Sarah couldn’t put her fears into perspective.

So all that worry was self-defeating. Sarah’s worry habit undid any good that her caring did.   

Belief 4: Worry helped her children cope better

Sarah’s children only ever saw her worrying in an effort to cope with problems. But they never learned how to solve problems themselves.

So when they faced problems as they grew older, they copied her example and worried about them.

But 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 in the process, find peace and 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, and brought about the thing she was most worried about. 

Belief 5: Worrying protected their health and welfare

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. However there’s never any evidence of any illness. These health worries sometimes can consume her waking moments. Naturally, work and relationships take a backseat until she puts into place strategies she’s learned to manage her worry.

Sarah was stunned when she found about Jay and Katie’s issues. She’d been completely unaware when they were teens. In effect, they’d 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. But she was always too preoccupied with her own fears.

Therefore, none of Sarah’s children have reached their full potential yet, and have had to struggle to find contentment. So did Sarah’s worrying really protect her children’s health and well-being? It doesn’t seem so. However she can’t see how self-defeating her worry habit has been.

Sarah’s justification for worry

In fact, in her mind, their problems actually 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 been so unaware of what was really happening in front of her eyes.

Belief 6: Worrying prevented future problems

Sarah was largely unaware how children develop self-identity, autonomy and mastery. And she made the assumption that they’d never cope if they faced problems. So she decided she had to protect them from anything even mildly unpleasant. 

However, her children may have been naturally more resilient than her, if only they’d been given encouragement. And if they weren’t resilient to start with, they could have learned resilience and problem-solving skills.

Ideally, she’d have let her children gradually make more choices as they matured. But Sarah couldn’t tolerate her own worry at 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. Her anxiety didn’t allow her to let her children learn these valuable life skills. 

Sarah did her best to wrap 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 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.

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 how to improve what’s happened. 

Rather than worrying, plan ways to prevent those negative events that you can do something about. You can adopt a sensible lifestyle, and take steps to head off major problems. Then either accept the issues you can’t change, or leave the situation if it affects your well-being.

However, worrying nonstop won’t solve anything. Stop worrying 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. Then allow these feeling to recede, and 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 by worry that’s self-defeating.

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