So many of the anxieties that we face are rooted in events and circumstances that we’ve experienced in the past. Childhood traumas, challenges as a teenager and bad relationships in our adult years can all leave emotional scars that remain for years if not a lifetime. As long as they’re allowed to hang around, these old war wounds will continue to block your growth and success.
But rather than using those hurts as excuses or justifications for the anxieties and limitations you suffer now, recognizing and purging them can liberate you to move on and continue the growth that is your intention and your right.
The first step in leaving your worries behind is to establish an accurate assessment of exactly what it is you’re anxious about and how this worry routine began. When reflecting on my own life and the worry habits that I wanted to leave behind, I discovered a number of origins and reinforcements that needed to be addressed.
For example I did not grow up with anything even approaching financial wealth. We were wealthy in many non-financial ways, but dollars were scarce. One of the ways that my parents dealt with the situation was that my mother would sew many of our clothes herself. While it was a tremendous amount of work, not to mention a tremendous talent, as an adolescent I was always conscious of and embarrassed about wearing home-made clothes instead of fancy store-bought ones like the other kids wore. This was one of the many situations that reinforced for me that money didn’t grow on trees and required constant worry.
As I turned these and other origins of fear and worry over and over in my mind, that’s all that seemed to happen – I turned them over and over in my mind. I never made progress with my thinking. I never came up with any solutions. I simply regurgitated the same mental contents of yesterday, last week, last month, last year again and again.
Painful, boring and not the least bit useful.
One day, though, I was somehow inspired to take the constantly recurring thoughts out of my brain and put them down on paper.
And that’s when everything began to change.
All of a sudden, as I reread the notes I’d made, the worries were no longer in my head, they had somehow moved outside of me. I had gained an objectivity about them that hadn’t existed when they were simply swirling around in my brain. Suddenly, my worried thoughts no longer owned me. I owned them. And now that I owned them, they were mine to do with, to control and to dispose of as I pleased.
A major success strategy in conquering your own anxieties and worries is to get them outside of you, to externalize and objectify those feelings. And one of the most effective ways of doing this is to write your feelings, and the origins of those feelings down on paper.
Susan David, Ph.D. is an award-winning Harvard Medical School psychologist and author of the #1 Wall Street Journal bestselling book, Emotional Agility. In an article for The Cut she wrote about the benefits of writing as a means to emotional processing. She cited research done by James Pennebaker, a distinguished professor at the University of Texas that showed how people who write about experiences that have been emotionally intense show improvements in both physical and mental well-being.
The process also allowed them to discover and benefit from the life lessons that are always buried deep in otherwise traumatic events. They were able to understand the experience and its consequences in a much clearer and more objective way.
I encourage you to start a personal journal.
Susan David suggests setting aside 20 minutes each day and using a notebook or a computer to write about your emotional experiences from the past week, month, or year. My personal experience is that, while it might be slower, it’s far more effective to write by hand than it is to type into a computer.
There’s something about the slower, more deliberate and kinesthetic act of writing that helps you objectify and externalize these negative emotions, which is an important part of the letting-go process. As you write, imagine the anxieties flowing out through your arm, your hand and your fingers, into the pen and onto the paper.
As you write, fully expect your self-censor to spring into action and try to shut you down or at least minimize your efforts. You’ll find your self-talk saying things such as, “This really isn’t a problem for me.” “It’s not that bad.” “I should be able to stop worrying on my own.” “What would my (mother) (husband) (rabbi) (children) say if they knew I was struggling with this?” “This is just silly! I’ve got more important things to do.” “My anxieties aren’t worth this much attention. Think about the starving children…”
Recognize these thoughts as they arise and smile as you recall that we predicted them right here. Don’t fight them, but let them gently pass through and then out of your mind. Imagine these thoughts as wisps of mist that drift into your brain and then drift right back out again. No need to pay them any attention.
The fact is that you do deserve to live a worry-free life. You are worthy of the time and attention it takes to let your anxieties melt away. You have as much right to a joyful, fear-free life as anyone and it’s time to be kind and gentle with yourself. So let all the “should’s,” “ought-to’s” and “you’re doing what’s?!” that come your way roll right off your back. This is your Me Time and you deserve it.
Don’t try to make the writing perfect, coherent or legible. The point is to let your mind flow where it will. Don’t try to justify, explain or judge yourself in any way. Just write. As you write about each anxiety and its origins, allow yourself to again feel fully the emotions that you felt way back then as you were told or witnessed or experienced something that caused you to be anxious. Feel, also, the emotions you experience every time a present-day trigger reinforces that anxiety. Let your thoughts flow into words on the paper as you freely describe your feelings.
So now it’s your turn. Pick up your pen and your journal and start writing now. When you get it out on paper it’s much harder for it to go back into your mind.