Why Worrying Doesn’t Work

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A client told me a story about having to give an oral report in school as a young boy. A few days before, he had it all planned out in his head and only needed to write down some notes. Noticing that he wasn’t working on it, his Mom asked him, “Aren’t you worried about it?” Now why would she ask if he wasn’t worried? Did she want him to worry? Probably not, but, for her, worry and handling something were the same. She just wondered if he was handling it. But, in her thinking, how you handled something was by worrying about it. For her handling his report and worrying about it were one thing. She had no distinction between worrying and handling things; how you handle something is by worrying about it. Every day you can hear someone in the media concerned that we aren’t worried about something enough or giving reasons why we need to “worry” about national security or global warming or being too dependent on foreign oil. So I guess his mother wasn’t alone in thinking that how to handle things is through worry.


Unfortunately, worry is a terrible way to get things done. In a moment I’ll share the reasons why worrying doesn’t work. But assuming this is right, that worry really is bad, why do we continue to do it?

There are two major reasons why people worry. The first is that they are taught to worry.  Parents worry about what is important to themselves and often encourage their children to worry about what is important to them. Parents have demonstrated how to worry and children have followed their lead generation after generation.

The second reason why people worry is because they believe that worry motivates them. The underlying belief is that worrying about something, whether it is finances, health or safety, will motivate them to do what they think will prevent these bad things from happening. Getting motivated is great, but worry is at best a poor way to get motivated, and at worst it actually contributes to creating the very things you are worried about. This is how that works.

All thinking has a structure. Worry is a thought, and the thought structure of worry is imagining what you don’t want to happen in your future. The intention of this thought is to motivate you to do what will prevent what you are worrying about from occurring. When you worry, you imagine what you don’t want, and then you try to make it not happen. Worrying that you won’t be able to pay your bills, you are imagining that you actually won’t be able to pay your bills at some point in your future. You worry because you believe that this worry thought will motivate you to do the things you need to do to generate the money to pay your bills. Thus worry is an avoidance motivation strategy. You imagine not being able to pay your bills at some point in the future, and then you try to prevent it from happening, thus avoiding your “worry” future. All worry is supported by this motivation to avoid undesirable futures that you are imagining. Even worry about some unwanted thing that is already happening is imagining a negative future of it continuing or getting worse. Worrying about an illness that you already have is about it continuing and/or getting worse in your future.

Unfortunately, motivating yourself by avoiding what you don’t want is at best inefficient and at worst helps create what you are trying to avoid. Worrying only addresses what you don’t want, never what you do want. Worrying about being unhealthy doesn’t address what you can do to get healthy and be healthy in the future. Failing to imagine what you want is a terrible method for actually getting what you want because it doesn’t help you create explicit goals. If you are in Chicago and you want to get to San Francisco, only thinking about not going to Los Angeles, without thinking about your destination, is not likely to get you to San Francisco. It can just as easily get you to Boston. So thinking about what you don’t want, and moving away from or avoiding it, is a really inefficient way to get what you want.

Another problem with worry is that worry feels bad right now. Please join me in a little mental experiment. Think about something that you want in your life, something that you care about like being healthy, succeeding in your career or having healthy relationships with your children. I want you to first imagine not getting it. Imagine having serious health problems, or failing in your career or being estranged from your kids. Notice that you don’t feel very good, and maybe pretty terrible. Now, please shake this thought off — literally shake your body. Now imagine getting this thing that you really want. Create a clear image of being healthy and vibrant, enjoying great success professionally and having wonderful relationships with your children. Feels pretty good, doesn’t it.

At least some of the time, maybe most of the time, you behave in ways that increase the likelihood of getting what you want. There are no guarantees, but you can often exercise significant influence. Exercising, eating healthy foods, maintaining healthy relationships and relaxing are all things you can do to increase the likelihood of being healthy in the future. Now, are you more likely to engage in these activities if you feel good because you are imagining succeeding, or if you feel bad because you’re worrying about it? The answer is obvious. Anticipating getting what you want and thus feeling good will support behaving in those ways that will move you toward your goals. Worrying feels bad and thus keeps you in an un-resourceful state. So worry is a terrible way to increase the possibility of getting what you want, because it prevents you from thinking about what you do want, and from feeling good right now, making it harder to generate the resources you could use to move toward your desires.

The third problem with worry becomes evident when you consider how minds work. Minds cannot entertain a negative set. What this means is that you can’t think of not something. When asked to think of not elephants, you think of elephants. When asked to think about not losing all your money in the stock market, you think about losing all your money. When you worry with the intention of avoiding what you are worrying about, you are actually imagining what you don’t want to happen. In this way worry is as powerful as any hypnotic suggestion you can make to yourself. And you are the most powerful hypnotist in our own life. When you worry, and then your conscious attention naturally moves on to something else, the thought of what you don’t want remains in your unconscious. The unconscious will then do what it can to create this reality that you are imagining in your future. How many times have you discovered that you have been behaving in ways that actually move you towards what you don’t want to happen, instead of behaving in ways that move you toward what you want? An incredible miracle and one of the graces in life is that people get a lot of what they want despite their worrying.

These three problems with worry give you plenty of incentive to imagine what you want instead of worrying. But if you believe there is more going on than just our normal body/mind experience, there is another problem with worry. If you believe that thought creates form, then worrying is a great way to broadcast what you don’t want into the non-physical. Worry is the invitation to the universe to provide what you are worried about. Like attracts like and worry attracts more things to worry about. The simple, but not easy, alternative is to imagine what you want and be grateful in advance for getting it. Imagining what you want and being grateful for it being provided is a formula for attracting positive things. If you want to be really brave, you can even forgo imagining what you want specifically. You can instead trust and imagine that the universe will provide you with whatever is for your highest and best good. The risk here is that sometimes good things can come in the form of some trial and tribulation that provides the opportunity for learning surrender and non-attachment.

In the very least, not worrying and instead imagining what you do want works much better towards creating a future that you’ll be glad to experience once you get there. When you stop worrying and imagine what you want with the intention of moving toward it, you align your unconscious thoughts, your emotions and the transpersonal universe with your desires. There’s no better way to approach life.

One Response to Why Worrying Doesn’t Work

  1. Alice
    Posted November 28, 2012 at 5:34 pm | Permalink

    Wonderful article. Thanks.

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