Andrew Bernstein

Andrew Bernstein

The Myth of Stress

Why Worrying Isn't a Sign of Love

How to disentangle worry from love.

Posted May 24, 2010

"It's a terrible thing, what she's been through; what she's still going through—it could come back at anytime."

A friend and I were at a party for M., who was celebrating her recovery from cancer. If worrying were an Olympic sport, my friend would show Michael Phelps a thing or two. She worries about herself. She worries about her friends. She worries about people she will never meet (note to Tom Cruise's children: She worries about you.)

For my friend and millions of people like her, worry is a sign of love. It says that, even though I am okay, I am selfless enough to suffer vicariously for you. And isn't that the definition of love? Wouldn't it be uncaring not to feel terrible for others, given what some people have to deal with?

At the risk of giving worriers everywhere nothing to do, the answer is no.

Take the example of M., diagnosed with cancer. Let's say you love her. So what do you do? You call, you offer to help, you visit with chicken soup and DVD's and good cheer. You ask what else you can do, and M. says, "Nothing, thank you for asking. I have everything I need." You tell M. to call you if she thinks of anything else, and you check in with her regularly, sending little messages, aware of her just as you're aware of the other people you care about as you return to happily doing whatever it is you do. That's love.

Here's another version.

M. is diagnosed with cancer. So what do you do? You call, full of pity that you try to disguise but not disguise too much because you want her to know, after all, that your heart is breaking for her. You offer to help with her awful situation. You bring chicken soup and DVD's and so much worry that it fills the room. You ask what else you can do, and M. says, "Nothing, thank you for asking. I have everything I need." Nonsense, you think. She's pretending to be strong. With meaningful glances and pregnant sighs, you make sure everyone around you knows how absolutely terrible the situation is, and you spend every waking minute consumed by thoughts of M.'s unfortunate plight, hoping that other people you love don't have the same terrible experience, hoping that you don't have to bear the unbearable cross now sitting on M.'s weakened shoulders.

Some people will defend the second version saying that it's more compassionate, that it's more human, and that seeing difficult circumstances without a negative emotional reaction would be an act of cold denial. To the contrary, I think that seeing life as you believe it "should" be or is going to be is the act of denial. Seeing life as it is is an act of compassion. And when you see life this way, it opens you up to be human in a way that is far more sustainable and kind.

There are compelling reasons to do this. First, worrying about others has a very real effect on your own body. The more you worry, the more you throw off the delicate balance of hormones required for health. The word worry comes from the Old High German word wurgen which means to strangle. Worrisome thoughts and their resulting feelings are a form of self strangulation. They not only strangle your emotions. They affect your physical life as well, and your ability to focus and get things done.

And if your own strangulation isn't enough, those on the other side of your worry may experience choking too. When I first shared ActivInsight with cancer patients, I was surprised to learn that after a while some of them weren't too bothered by their diagnoses - they were following their protocols and staying focused on recovering. If they had fears about the future, they could work on "I know I'm going to die" and bring their minds back to the real world. But their families' constant worrying was a bigger problem. Even though other people have no power to disturb our emotions, it can sure seem like they do, and a life full of well-meaning worriers is a burden many people would rather not carry.

Consider, too, the larger subtext of what worry says. When you worry about someone else, you teach them that things aren't going to be okay, that something bad is taking place, that the situation is inherently stressful. Instead of giving them a model of someone who meets life as it is -— even as you work to improve it in any way possible — you become someone who rejects life in the name of some imaginary future, and in that very act of rejection, you teach misery. All of this, of course, is done innocently and with the best intentions, simply because you believe worry is love. But it isn't.

When a friend is sick, I see the situation for what it is, not what it isn't, and I offer to help as much as she wants, not as much as I want. And when I'm not there, I know that she'll turn to me if she wants more help or compassion or DVD's or just someone to talk to, because I can give that to her without projecting my own imagination onto her reality. If she doesn't call, she simply doesn't need me, which I take as a very good sign.

But if I can't yet see the situation for what it is, it's time to explore topics such as, "She shouldn't be sick." "Sickness is bad." "I know what's going to happen." "If I don't feel bad for her, it means I don't love her." Identifying and challenging these thoughts heals the disease of my own mind — my worry — and makes me better able to care for myself and others.

And if I'm the person who is sick and I want other people to worry for me, I would take a closer look at that: "I want people to be worried for me," "If they're not worrying, it means they don't love me." Or, if I want them to stop worrying, "They shouldn't worry so much." Either way, once I've had an insight, I'm going to have a conversation with my loved ones so that we can all learn to disentangle worry and love. This isn't about becoming an ascetic. I may want you to hold my hand! But that can happen with genuine caring and affection, without the sense of misery or doom.

This experience of worry-free love isn't something you come to through philosophy or intention. It doesn't happen simply because you like the sound of it. It has to be gained through insight. Worry is an act of relative peak intelligence based on mistaken assumptions. As those assumptions are seen through, belief by belief, insight by insight, an even higher peak intelligence unfolds.

Then it becomes clear that love cares, love listens, love empathizes, love goes out of its way to do anything asked of it. But love doesn't worry. Worry is a byproduct of confusion. If you love someone and feel worried about them (or yourself), you are loving in spite of your worry, not because of it. Find the beliefs that are strangling your feelings, challenge them* for your sake as well as theirs, and see how it feels to love someone without a thought about the future, simply for who they are today.

* Three effective techniques for challenging beliefs are ActivInsight, Cognitive Therapy, and The Work of Byron Katie.

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Andrew Bernstein is the founder of ActivInsight, a process that is changing the way individuals and organizations understand stress and resilience. His new book, The Myth of Stress, reveals how ActivInsight quickly transforms problems such as relationships, weight loss, money, success, heartbreak, divorce, and more. You can ask Andrew questions in the comments here, in his Facebook group, or through Twitter @mythofstress.

 

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