People who are consistently successful get up and do what needs to be done. They start something. Then they learn from their mistakes, make corrections, and try again. In this process they build momentum and either achieve their goals or something even better than they dreamed.
I’m a big fan of Jack Canfield, co-author of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books and author of The Success Principles. In his live seminars he demonstrates how those of us who are trapped by worry and anxiety frequently stop ourselves from taking action.
He begins by holding up a hundred-dollar bill and asking if anyone in the audience would like it. Then he waits.
Many raise their hand. Some call out that they want the money. But typically there are only a few people who actually come to the stage to get the money. When they do, he gives it to them and they sit down, a hundred dollars richer for their efforts. Jack then points out that the person with the money did something no one else did—they took the necessary action to get the hundred dollars.
Too many of us think about stepping up and taking action, but then stop ourselves. When he asks the audience why they didn’t just come up and take the bill, the answers are typically:
I didn’t want to look like I wanted or needed it that badly.
I wasn’t sure if you would really give it to me.
I was too far back in the room.
Other people need it more than I do.
I didn’t want to look greedy.
I was afraid I might be doing something wrong and then people would judge me or laugh at me.
I was waiting for further instructions.
How many of these excuses are preventing you from getting on with the things you want to accomplish? How often has part of you wanted to make progress on solving the problem, but another part of you held yourself back, waiting for a better time, waiting for more instructions or concerned that someone might judge you?
Every time a viable action is warranted but you hesitate, delay, or fail to act, you rob yourself of a little bit of life. And you condemn yourself to a life of “coulda,” and “shoulda.”
We spend way too much time waiting for conditions to be just right. We wait for reassurance, inspiration, the right timing, the economy to improve, the kids to leave home, the rain to stop, a clear set of instructions, the alignment of the planets.
I once heard it said that the best time to plant a tree was twenty-five years ago. The second-best time is right now. What, exactly, are you waiting for? Permission? Perfect conditions? Guarantees? They’re not coming. So just go ahead and leap.
We also frequently find ourselves in situations where action is needed, but you don’t have the skills, knowledge, or resources to take that action yourself. You need to ask for help. Which is another stumbling block that keeps so many people stuck in neutral. None of us can do everything alone, and asking for help is a wonderful and valuable skill that the world’s most successful people have mastered.
What do you need help with? Do you need to call someone to ask for information? Do you need to ask to borrow money? Do you need to ask for a recommendation or introduction? Do you need to ask for a job? Do you need to ask for a simple helping hand?
We live in a society that is uncomfortable with asking for help. Which is actually a bit surprising because the vast majority of people are only too happy to help us. Altruism is a natural human instinct. We’re just afraid to ask.
What are we afraid of?
We don’t want to look needy. We don’t want to be judged. We don’t want to feel inferior or beholden. We don’t want to impose on anyone. And the more we hide behind those fears, the less we’re able to accomplish and the more we stay stuck in our narrow little rut.
Challenge yourself today – no, in the next 15 minutes! – to take an action that you’ve been putting off. Ask yourself why you’ve been procrastinating on this; what it is that you’ve been fearing. Looking needy? Being judged?
C’mon! Life’s too short to sit around waiting for the kids to leave home or the sun to come out. Let’s go! Right now!
In the same way that you can’t live your entire life without experiencing the occasional bad weather day, it’s impossible to completely avoid all fear. Fear is a natural—and useful—response to threatening situations.
Worry and anxiety, though, are completely optional and your life would be much happier, more peaceful, and more successful without them. What might a worry- and anxiety-free life feel like? A worry-free person:
It’s entirely possible for you to become that worry-free person. It requires, first, that you want to. It will require that you put in effort and break some old habits. But it won’t be as challenging or take nearly as long as you think.
Nathaniel Branden was a psychotherapist and writer known for his work in the psychology of self-esteem. He said that self-esteem is “the disposition to experience oneself as competent to cope with the basic challenges of life and as worthy of happiness.” He also believed that, while parents, teachers, friends, and others can nurture and support your self-esteem, if it’s to be really effective, it’s primarily a do-it-yourself job.
From the point of your conception to this very moment, the world around you has been teaching you to worry and doubt yourself. Everybody else worries, so it only makes sense that you should too. There’s even a so-called joke that goes something like, “If you’re not worried, it’s because you haven’t realized how bad things are.”
We see worry all around us every day. Our common language encourages us to worry with phrases such as, “Oh, that’s worrisome!” “Mom’s worried about you.” “I’d be worried if I were you.” It’s assumed we’re supposed to worry and we don’t ever question the wisdom of it. After all, it’s a time- honored practice.
Do you remember the old story of The Emperor’s New Clothes? It’s a classic example of the kind of ‘groupthink’ that has us all believing that anxiety is simply a fact of life. It doesn’t have to be.
We also like to pass along our personal paranoias. According to The Washington Post, America’s most common fears are:
1. Public speaking
3. Bugs and Insects
6. Enclosed in small spaces
9. Zombies (really!)
A parent who has a fear of strangers, for example, is likely to insist that his or her children should avoid them and fill their young minds with all the terrible things that will happen, should they encounter a stranger. As a result, the otherwise normally balanced child grows up believing that strangers (or airplanes, or doctor’s needles, or tall buildings) are to be avoided at all costs. The fears are irrational, but the training is effective.
In addition to instilling fears and phobias, our early training by parents, teachers, coaches and others in authority established a limiting set of beliefs and self-doubts that continue to stymie our growth well into, or even throughout our adult lives. We’ve been buried under an avalanche of “sensible’s,” “should’s,” “ought to’s” and “you’d better’s” that told us, repeatedly, that our deepest and most precious desires were somehow wrong, misguided or stupid.
I think it’s time we all stopped shoulding all over ourselves.
Every infant knows exactly what it wants and doesn’t hesitate to ask for it. You knew the foods you liked and spit out the ones you didn’t. You knew when you wanted to sleep and when you wanted to be held. When you become mobile you saw what you wanted and headed straight for it. And that’s when the admonitions began:
- Don’t touch that!
- Keep your hands to yourself.
- Eat everything on your plate.
- You don’t really feel that way.
- You don’t really want that.
- You should be ashamed of yourself!
As you got older it morphed into…
- Stop crying. Don’t be such a baby.
- You can’t have everything you want simply because you want it.
- Money doesn’t grow on trees.
- Stop being so selfish!
- Stop doing what you are doing and come do what I want you to do!
It doesn’t take much of this before you throw up your hands and conclude that your desires, your wishes, your preferences don’t matter, so why bother? It’s a waste of emotional energy to have dreams of your own.
If you buy into this swindle, the secret to success is to figure out what everybody else wants you to do. To learn to please others and find ways to get their approval, whether it makes you feel good or not.
- You became an engineer because that’s what Dad wanted you to do
- You married that guy because everybody else was getting married
- You became a lawyer because everyone said that you’d never make a living as an artist
You became so sensible that you completely lost touch with who you really are and what you really want. And in the process, you took on one of the biggest and most common worries of all: What do other people think of me?
Take a few minutes and think back to your childhood, your youth and your adulthood. You might find it useful to journal a few of your thoughts about the origins of your own worry habits. How were you taught to worry? What were you told? What did you observe? How did some of your childhood, teenage and young adult experiences launch or reinforce any worry habits? How did any of those experiences initiate any self-doubts you might have?
Yes, we’ve been attending worry lessons our entire lives. But in all that time, no one has ever pointed out the simple truth that worry doesn’t help anything. Nothing has ever changed as a result of worrying about it. We worry because we’ve been conditioned to. A newborn has an instinctive fear of falling and loud noises. Everything else is learned and conditioned
You learned how to worry. Now it’s time to unlearn.
For way too many people, worry and anxiety are the normal, default emotional state. The phone rings and you assume it’s someone calling with bad news. There’s a knock at the door and your first thought is that it’s the police, coming to inform you that your son has been in an accident. The school sends a note home with your child and, before you’ve even opened it, you’re convinced it has to do with a behavior problem.
Why do our minds always and immediately go to the worst possible negative outcome? Why doesn’t my mind, instead, respond, “I bet it’s Publisher’s Clearing House with my million-dollar check!” Or, “They probably want him to represent the school at the United Nations!” Why do we imagine all the things that could go wrong but never give equal time to consider, list and weigh everything that could go right? Why is our default position always to instantly imagine all the horrible outcomes that are likely to befall us?
Turns out that there are two reasons for this.
The first is that our brains are naturally wired with something called a ‘negativity bias.’ This means that, through millions of years of evolution, our brains have grown to be more sensitive to bad news than good. Dr. John Cacioppo was a Professor of Psychology, Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Chicago. In studies that he conducted when he was at Ohio State University, he showed that our brains react more strongly to negative stimuli than to positive. Our attitudes are more significantly influenced by bad news than by good.
It makes sense, too. When we were wandering around in the same neighborhood as hungry saber tooth tigers, we were well served by a brain with systems that made us notice, and respond to danger. Today, the tigers are long gone but that biology is still with us. Now, instead of noticing a charging mastodon, our negativity bias is alerting us to the insulting Facebook post or the (extremely remote) possibility of a bad medical diagnosis. As Hara Estroff Marano wrote in Psychology Today, “Nastiness just makes a bigger impact on our brains.”
The second reason is that, from the earliest age, we’ve been trained and conditioned to worry.
And I do mean earliest! Numerous scientific studies indicate that anxiety in the mother during pregnancy can have significant mental and behavioral effects on the child as it grows up. The results of one study showed that high levels of maternal anxiety have a “significant relation with mental disorders, emotional problems, lack of concentration and hyperactivity and impaired cognitive development of children.” The same study also concluded that anxiety during pregnancy can lead to “irritability and restlessness, individual differences in reaction to stressful life events and more fear in dealing with life events.” Another study concluded that both physiological and emotional/mental effects of prenatal anxiety continue into infancy and childhood. Mental and emotional effects can include “greater negative emotionality and in infants, lower mental development scores and internalizing problems. Anxiety disorders occur during childhood and elevated cortisol and internalizing behaviors occur during adolescence.”
None of this means, however, that you can’t lessen your own anxiety levels. In fact, simply knowing the origins of your own unease begins to make it far easier to walk away from.
Perhaps your mother was completely Zen-like during her pregnancy and you emerged as balanced and unblemished as can be. Immediately, and rightly, your parents began to look after and protect you.
Think about the advice that all caring parents give to their children: “Don’t talk to strangers!” “Don’t forget to wash your hands – you don’t want to get sick.” “Be careful on the way home from school.” “Your hand will turn green and fall off if you keep doing that!”
To be sure, the advice about not talking to strangers is excellent – when you’re eight years old and walking home from school alone. But when you’re 26 or 56 and still cringing when someone you don’t know walks up and rings your doorbell, things are out of control. While it’s good that our parents taught us to be cautious, they should also have taught us when it’s okay to back off on the yellow alerts. All the admonitions taught us to be basically untrusting and wary of the world around us.
It’s also a very good idea to wash your hands regularly. But when you carry a bottle of hand sanitizer everywhere you go, wiping down every surface you plan to touch, it’s reached a level of anxiety that borders on paranoia. Our biology provides us with an immune system that’s designed to filter out the germs without any help from Purell. In fact, your immune system needs to encounter and learn about new bacteria all the time if it’s to remain robust and effective. If we’re constantly killing off all the germs on the shopping cart handle before our bodies have a chance to encounter and learn how to deal with them, it’ll lose its ability to ward off disease. Then, like the Mayans, Incas and Aztecs when they encountered the first Europeans, our bodies won’t stand a chance to fend for themselves when some new virus sneaks past the Handi Wipe.
There is no doubt that there are some things out there of which we need to be cautious. But let’s recognize that the vast majority of people, events and circumstances we encounter every day aren’t just benign, they’re downright beneficial, delightful and good.