Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


For Moms Who Worry a Lot

Why devoted moms shouldn't strangle themselves with worry.

Are you a mom who worries a lot? Do you worry a lot about your children? Do you think that you have to constantly be worrying about what's going on in the household and with the family? Do you feel as though, unless you worry about these things, everything will unravel? Is your life pretty much a bundle of worries?

Obviously, if this is you, then you are a very caring human being. You want to do the right thing. You want to be there for your children and significant others when they need you. You want people whom you love and deeply care about to be at their best game precisely because you do love and genuinely care about them.

But are you happy? Have you given this question its due? Indeed, as a consequence of being submerged in worry, you may not really have had the time to think very carefully about it. Like many devoted moms, perhaps you have told yourself that your worrying is simply the price you must pay to be the kind and caring person that you truly are. This is a very popular assumption. Many well-meaning, dedicated human beings spend a lifetime of worry, never challenging this commonplace assumption, and never realizing the toll it has taken on their own happiness and on the happiness of other family members. Now, however, is as good a time as any to begin to take a more careful look.

First, it is a good thing to want your kids and other members of your family to be happy and to want to be there for them. But a problem with many moms who worry a lot is that these wants or desires do not stay at the level of wants or desires. Instead, these moms turn them into Herculean demands on themselves. So you tell yourself that your kids must be happy and that things must always or almost always go well for them. But this is not the end. You also tell yourself that you are somehow the one who must make this all happen; that you have a moral duty to make it happen. And this is still not the end. You also tell yourself that you must constantly be on guard worrying about your kids' happiness even at the expense of your own happiness; and if you let your guard down and don't worry enough about your kid's happiness, and if you don't thereby make certain that they are indeed happy, then you are really not a good person; for you have then betrayed your solemn duty, and fallen asleep at the command post. It is then your fault and you are guilty as charged. So you feel guilty when you are not worrying and making sure that everything is right.

But, unfortunately, you are constantly fighting an uphill battle. Sometimes you might, indeed, feel like you have pulled it off; but inevitably, you will feel the strain and stress of a never-ending battle that seems to keep you in a state of worrying and feeling guilty when you try not to worry.

Not only is this a heap of stress on you, however. It can also be very stressful for your loved ones. Just think. There you are worrying about something, say about your child. And there is your husband sitting there watching the tube. "Why," you think, "isn't he also upset? How can he sit there without a care in world? What kind of man is that?" So you occasionally give him a dirty look and then when he asks if everything is alright, you say, "Yes, everything's fine," albeit with a hint of irony in your voice. Eventually, though, it all comes out in the wash, and you end up telling him off for not worrying along with you. Indeed, if you have a duty to worry, then so does your husband. If it's that important for you to worry, then he darn well better worry, too. Isn't that right? Yes, but only if you really have a duty to worry in the first place, and that is the thing you must come to see is just not true.

Do you have a moral duty to take care of your children? Yes! Do you have a moral duty to worry and ruminate about it? No.

Worrying and ruminating stress you out and do not help you to do the things about which you really care. Oh, but can't you figure out what to do by worrying and going over and over things in your mind? In other words, isn't it really helpful to worry and ruminate over things that are important to you?

To answer this question, you need a working definition of worrying. Worrying is an uneasy state of consciousness about the possibil­ity of a future unwanted event or state of affairs. Worrying is always, by its nature, unpleasant. In fact, the term "worry" comes from the old English wyrgan, which means "to strangle," and it is fair to say that worrying feels strangulating. This is because the object of worrying is always something bad that might happen. Often, the probabilities of this bad thing happening are magnified and then its badness is elevated to something extremely bad—to the level of awful, horrible, or terrible. "What's going to happen if my child doesn't get into the gifted program? Then he'll never be able to compete with the other kids and he won't get into a top-notch college; this would be a terrible thing and it'd be my fault for not making sure he got into the program."

Now, is such thinking really helpful? If you succeed in accomplishing your goal, it will usually be in spite of your worrying. The worrying itself—especially when it turns into a habit of chronic, relentless worrying—gets in the way of solving your problems.

Often, worrying takes the form of a dilemma. "No matter what I do something very bad might happen. If I don't talk to the chairman of the committee, he might not realize what great potential my child has. If, on the other hand, I talk to him, I might say the wrong thing or he might resent me for trying to influence him." Damned if you do and damned if you don't. So instead of focusing on solutions to your problem, such reasoning focuses on the catastrophic horns of the dilemma.

However, when you stop worrying and stop painting fruitless dilemmas, you can give yourself a chance to constructively confront your perceived problems and live happily at the same time. So how can you pull this off?

In my book, The Dutiful Worrier: How to Stop Compulsive Worry Without Feeling Guilty, I discuss and illustrate five basic steps you can take to think proactively. This is thinking that focuses on finding a solution to the problem at hand instead of catastrophizing about it. This plan systematically shows you how to make decisions without being misled and distracted by worry and feelings of guilt; and the book then gives you exercises that you can do to put the plan into practice.

One key aspect of this plan is to distinguish between morally responsible decisions and ones that aren't. In general, the former are more caring, beneficial, and respectful than the latter. In general, decisions involving worry and rumination disregard you and so are neither caring nor respectful of you. Nor are they caring and respectful of others who also must live and contend with the nervous tension of your worry and feelings of guilt. Nor are such decisions likely to be most beneficial to those about whom you worry, since you are less likely to act and think rationally under extreme stress.

I hope, then, that you will consider seriously letting yourself breathe instead of strangling yourself with needless worry. You may think you have a moral duty to worry yourself sick about the ones you love. Of course, this is because you care and want what's best for the ones you love; but the fact is that worrying yourself sick is self-defeating. So, stop strangling yourself with chronic worry. As a kind and caring person, you deserve nothing less!

More from Elliot D. Cohen Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today