“Can all your worries add a single moment to your life? And if worry can’t accomplish a little thing like that, what’s the use of worrying over bigger things?” (Luke 12:25-26, New Living Translation)
Worrying is a common part of the human existence. So common, Jesus himself felt the need to address the frivolousness of it. Those who worry understand it is not helpful, but why, then, do we continue to do it? Most actions that are repeated are continued because, in some way, they serve a purpose. What purpose does worrying serve?
For some, the purpose of worry is to reduce fear. This fear can be of the unknown or the possibility of something happening (Backus & Chapian, 1981). For example, you may be unsure of where you will work after you graduate. Therefore, you worry about how you will find a job. Maybe your son is going on a trip overseas, and you find yourself worrying about him being robbed or getting lost. The first example discussed is the fear of the unknown while the second example consisted of fear of what may happen. How does worry reduce fear? Through worrying, most people develop a plan of how to resolve the issue he or she is worried about. This plan creates a false sense of control.
The feeling of being in control is powerful. When you feel in control, you feel safe, positive, and prepared. The sense of not being in control is difficult for everyone. However, this false sense of control worrying creates is not real.
Have you ever noticed most situations do not turn out the way in which you worried about them? You find even though you thought you worried about every worst case scenario, there is one you did not think about (Backus & Chapian, 1981). Worrying steals your energy and leaves you exhausted to deal with the real event. While worrying may appear to reduce fear, in actuality, it is a thief of useful resources.
The concept of using worry to be avoidant may be a new idea for many of you reading this article. How can worrying about something make you avoidant? While you may hate the fact you worry, it may actually be more comforting than facing the problem itself.
Worrying may be so ingrained in your routine, it actually serves a purpose of helping you avoid situations or emotions you believe are too difficult to deal with (Backus & Chapian, 1981). For example, you may allow yourself to worry about your finances instead of creating a budget or thinking about the fight you had with your spouse last night. To truly understand if you use worry to avoid, you will have to be willing to evaluate your motives for worrying.
Worrying not only serves the purpose of avoidance, but it can also lead to learned helplessness. Learned helplessness refers to a false sense of inability to solve problems due to previous failures. It is learned helplessness because, in actuality, you are not helpless. You have learned to believe you are helpless.
How does this pertain to worrying?
- When you worry, you feel a lack of control.
- Worrying makes you believe the only way to control the situation is to worry about it.
- Worrying may lead to avoidance of events or things that worry you. If you never face the content of your worries, you will never know your capacity to overcome your negative thoughts (Backus & Chapian, 1981).
- Avoidance can lead to learned helplessness. If you never take a risk to face the unknown, you start to believe you have no control over things that happen to you. You believe you are helpless. In reality, you have control if only you would try.
The following is an example of this concept: You have a co-worker who seems rude to you when you ask for help. Whenever you try to ask her a question, her answers are short and sometimes she ignores you. Due to these interactions, you find yourself worrying about what you say to this co-worker. Actually, you find yourself avoiding her. You feel you have no control over the interactions because she is the one being rude. Therefore, you do not try to talk with her about your concerns. You believe you are helpless when, in actuality, you are not. While you cannot control this co-worker’s actions, you can express your frustrations about her reactions to you. This is one way you have control. You have control over addressing the issue or avoiding. You may avoid this situation because confrontation and how your co-worker may react is more frightening than dealing with the worry. In this example, telling yourself you have no control or there is nothing you can do is learned helplessness. You have control if only you would face your fear of talking with your co-worker.
The insight obtained through understanding the purpose worrying serves can be helpful in reducing the worry you experience. You cannot work on something you do not understand. More importantly, knowing the purpose of your worry can help you replace worry with healthier ways to get your needs met.
Rather than worrying to gain control of the situation, take steps toward having an actual level of control. If you have realized worrying helps you avoid, identify the things you are avoiding and why you are avoiding them. This removes some of their power over you. Jesus not only spoke about the frivolousness of worrying, but He also spoke about the hope He provides:
“And if God cares so wonderfully for flowers that are here today and thrown into the fire tomorrow, he will certainly care for you. Why do you have so little faith?” (Luke 12:28, New Living Translation).
Backus, W., & Chapian, M. (1981). Misbelief in anxiety. Telling yourself the truth (pp. 63-77). Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House Publishers.
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