Worry and Guilt: The Useless Emotions

Are you caught in a cycle of worry or guilt?

Posted Mar 03, 2017

"If you can solve your problem, then what is the need of worrying? If you
can't solve it, then what is the use of worrying?" —
Shantideva, 8th century C.E., Indian Buddhist sage

"Experience is the name everyone gives to their mistakes." —Oscar Wilde 

Alon/flickr Creative Commons
Source: Alon/flickr Creative Commons

Worry and guilt are opposite sides of a wooden nickel—two useless emotions facing different directions. Worry looks ahead, seeing threat and disaster at every turn. Guilt looks behind, imposing self-blame for perceived misfortunes and disappointments.

Before we consider some Minute Therapist suggestions for sending worry and guilt packing, let’s recap some basic principles:

  1. Behind every disturbing emotion is a disturbing thought. 
  2. Disturbing thoughts contain logical flaws or distortions, such as being too harsh on yourself, exaggerating the importance of negative events, focusing only on the negatives, etc. Merely thinking something doesn’t make it so.
  3. To control negative emotions, you need to take control of the thoughts that lay behind them. 
  4. Capturing disturbing thoughts involves monitoring or recording your inner speech or self-talk
  5. Once you capture a disturbing thought banging around in your head, examine it in the light of evidence, asking yourself questions such as, "Why must I think this way? What evidence supports the validity of this thought? What evidence disputes it? Are there other ways of thinking about ______?" Expose the logical flaws and inconsistencies in each disturbing thought. 
  6. Strike back against offending thoughts with a rational counterpunch. Write down on an index card (or use the note-keeping function on a smart phone) a rational self- statement or coping thought—basically a talking point to yourself—for each offending thought. Keep these coping cards close at hand so you can remind yourself to challenge and dispute irrational thinking wherever and whenever it occurs.
  7. To strengthen more adaptive thinking, practice your rational self-statements several times a day, such as when leaving the house in the morning, before taking a shower, or before switching on the TV.
  8. Substitute rational self-statements whenever you start muttering a disturbing thought to yourself or when you experience a disturbing emotion.
  9. In sum, Think (what’s going through your mind), Stop (repeating negative thoughts to yourself), and Substitute (rational thoughts in place of anxious thoughts, depressing thoughts, angering thoughts, worrying thoughts, and “guilting” thoughts). 

But Isn’t it Rational to Worry? 

Doesn't it make sense to worry? Don’t bad things in life happen often enough to give pause to even the most resolute among us? Doesn't worry prepare us to deal more effectively with life's eventual losses and tragedies?

The fact that bad things happen and that you should prepare yourself to face adversity doesn’t mean that worry serves any constructive purpose. You needn't be motivated by worrisome feelings to protect your family with a life insurance policy or to draft a will. Worry is not needed for preparedness.

Worry is the excess emotion that remains after all reasonable measures are taken to safeguard your family and personal interests. Worry may actually drive you to make bad decisions, such as in the case of adopting any new health fad that comes along irrespective of evidence supporting its effectiveness or potential for harm. Worrisome thinking increases anxiety but does not help you focus on finding effective solutions.

Like anxiety and fear, worry is an emotion that derives from the appraisal of threat.  With worry, however, the threat lies in the indefinite future, not the present reality.  Whereas fear may be adaptive when it alerts us to signs of danger we see before us, what good comes from worrying about some possible future event? Ah, you may wonder, doesn’t worrying help us remain vigilant in uncertain and apprehensive times. But do we really need to worry to remain vigilant? Can’t we take reasonable precautions to deal with threats we face in life without having to suffer the emotional baggage of constantly worrying? Certainly, we can. In effect, worriers operate according to a set of rules that follow a twisted logical path:    

  1.  Terrible things happen to people.
  2.  These terrible things can happen anytime.
  3.  I must be constantly on guard at all times to prepare for these terrible things.
  4.  I must never let down my guard lest some terrible thing happen when I least expect it.
  5.  Because of (1), (2), (3) and (4), I can only feel somewhat safe and secure if I maintain a watchful attitude at all times and consider all the possible things that can go wrong, over and over again in my mind.

The chronic worrier is locked into a way of thinking in which worrying is a magic charm that offers partial protection against the terrible things that can go wrong. Worrisome thinking has two basic cognitive components:

  • Expecting something bad to happen; and
  • Lacking confidence in your ability to handle the impending threat.

Here's why worry is a useless emotion: 

It is rational to be aware of potential threats that might affect your physical, emotional, or financial well-being. Being sensitive to cues signaling danger helps us maintain a state of preparedness. But worry simply adds to our emotional woes without helping us prepare for threats we might face. If you are facing an important examination or business meeting, it makes sense to prepare as best you can.  Worry adds nothing to preparedness, but it does add excess emotional baggage that, ironically, can heighten anxiety and interfere with your ability to function at your best. In other words, why worry?

We can liken worrying to a chemical formula consisting of one part perception of threat and another part perceiving yourself as inadequate to deal with the threat. It's as though the worrier is thinking, "Something terrible is going to happen and I won't be able to cope with it." The logical consequence is that the worrier feels helpless, sensing impending doom but feeling unable to do anything about it, except of course, to worry about it. 

Are You a Chronic Worrier? 

Let us count the ways:

  • Do you worry about everything little thing?
  • Is there never a day that goes by without having something to worry about?
  • When you are having a good time, is there always some worry lurking in the back of your mind?
  • Are you overconcerned with making sure everything is exactly the way it's supposed to be before you can feel relaxed?
  • Do you find yourself thinking too much about common behaviors most people take for granted, such as how well you're driving the car, or even whether you are chewing your food correctly, or whether your clothes are perfectly matched?
  • Does the idea of making a mistake bother you more than most people?   
  • Are you constantly watching yourself or scanning your body for signs of ill health?
  • Do you become overly concerned when events don't go according to plan and you just can’t accept things as they are? (Do you obsess about your newly installed kitchen floor because the color does not have quite the hint of apricot that you thought it would?)

In our next blog, we look at steps to break out of the worry cycle. Then we’ll take a look at the other useless emotion—guilt.

© 2017 Jeffrey S. Nevid