My client, Nicole, could not calm her worry.
She worried about everything: she worried that if she didn’t marry, she would grow old alone—and that if she were to marry, her husband would end up cheating on her. She worried that if she stayed in her job, she would burn out—and that if she left her job, she would never find another one. The truth was Nicole’s worrying kept her distracted. It kept her focused on all the things that could go wrong, instead of facing the reality of her current set of circumstances head-on.
Unlike fear, persistent worry is chaotic, future-oriented, and creative. Your worry thinks up all kinds of things to distract you, things that may have little bearing on your current reality. In doing so, worry protects you from getting to the root of your fear. It often feels easier to dwell on the things that might happen than to implement a plan to counter real threats.
When worry is contained within healthy boundaries, it’s constructive. . . it can help you be wise. But when it becomes extreme, it keeps you stuck in the weeds, instead of getting down to the root of a problem. In week 4 of this series on the 7 most common protectors, let’s take a look at how to calm your worry.
Here are five signs that your worrying has become extreme:
- You constantly dwell on the “what ifs” instead of creating an action plan for “right now.”
- You experience a lot of internal chatter and confusion, and it’s difficult for you to experience peace.
- You tend to catastrophize, such that problems seem bigger than they are.
- You have difficulty concentrating or find it hard to sleep.
- You struggle with frequent anxiety or panic attacks.
If you notice yourself struggling in any of these ways, your tendency to worry has likely become protective. Your internal “worrier” is busy keeping you from connecting to the more vulnerable aspects of your soul. And as a result, it’s actually keeping you from getting the relief you need.
The trick is to befriend your worry so that you can get some healthy distance from it. In doing so, you can face your fear which paradoxically brings freedom and clarity. Here’s how:
To calm your worry, first focus on the part of you that’s worrying
When you focus on it, you recognize it as only one part of who you are. You gain distance from it. Psychologists use the term “differentiation” when they speak of gaining healthy distance from another person. Similarly, internal differentiation refers to gaining distance from your thoughts and feelings. Differentiating internally empowers you to recognize that worrying is not all of who you are—it’s just one part. That realization alone can bring relief. (For more on the brain science behind this process, check out the fascinating book The Body Keeps the Score.)
Next, extend compassion toward the part of you that’s developed this habit of worrying
It’s a strong and important part of you that has developed to help you survive. At its best, your worry is trying to warn you of danger. Let that worrying part of you know that you get it. . . and that with God’s help you are more capable to face life’s challenges than this part of you might think. By setting gentle boundaries with your tendency to worry, you’re showing courage.
Identify 1-2 fears that are at the root of your worry
What is the worst thing that this part of you fears could happen? At first you might notice catastrophic thoughts like, “My whole life will ruined!” Like an emotionally vulnerable teen, this part of you might quickly jump to the dramatic. Gently acknowledge those concerns, until this part of you senses your compassion. Then see if you can get clarity on one very real possibility. You’re starting to get down to the root, so get really clear here—write it down. Here are some examples of the fears that often hide beneath our worrying:
I don’t have what it takes.
I’ll be rejected or misunderstood.
I’ll disappoint someone.
I’ll be proved a fool.
I’ll make a mistake.
Invite God to draw near
As you become more aware of the fear your worrying has worked so hard to keep you from facing, invite God into it. You’ve gotten to the deep fear under your worry, and you have a place to take it. It’s so powerful to acknowledge simply, “I am frightened” before God. You don’t need to eradicate fear—you have what it takes to soothe it. Acknowledging a core fear doesn’t make you weak. It makes you more whole. And it provides you an opportunity to depend on Jesus. . . and move forward in faith.
You can calm your worry by keeping it contained within healthy boundaries and befriending the deep fear that resides underneath it. As your overly active worrying protector witnesses your ability to face your fear bravely in partnership with God, it will start to soften and gain trust. It may take some time, but don’t be discouraged. You’re cultivating rich soil of courage and confidence.
“I’m with you. I’ll give you strength. I’ll help you. I’ll hold you steady, keep a firm grip on you.” Isaiah 41:10-13*
*All verses quoted are from The Message in honor of the life and work of Eugene Peterson. I am ever grateful for his life of faithful service.