There’s something about the year rounding out and a new year begun that makes me feel there are endless possibilities in the coming year. As exciting as that is, it also feeds the beast of anxiety inside me. While personal history has taught me that change usually brings joy and happiness to my life, my anxiety says it’s going to be a disaster and that everything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
That’s my anxiety. It’s not based on reality, experience, probability or usefulness and yet it comes to mind and runs the show. It makes me hesitant and tightly wound. I’m so busy waiting for the bottom to fall out when I do something new that I miss a lot of the great things happening right in front of me.
Danish existentialist Søren Kierkegaard believed there was a difference between anxiety and fear. Fear, he said, is what we feel when there is “something definite” that intimidates us, whereas anxiety is what we feel when there is potentially something upon us, when there is possibly something to be worried about. Anxiety to Kierkegaard was simply the fear of the unknown:
Anxiety may be compared with dizziness. He whose eye happens to look down the yawning abyss becomes dizzy. But what is the reason for this? It is just as much in his own eye as in the abyss, for suppose he had not looked down. Hence, anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into its own possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself. Freedom succumbs to dizziness.
Surely it’s a lot to tease through, but in essence, we might be afraid of possibility, change and improvisation when we’re anxious. While boundless possibilities should be exciting, a worrier will catastrophize and believe that the worst-case scenario is inevitable. Instead of feeling liberated by all the possibilities, we feel petrified and constrained. We feel stuck on a runaway train.
Besides feeling terrible when I’m petrified, I can’t count on myself to realize my dreams or reach my goals. I become inflexible, a broken record and a real stick in the mud. I’m sure it can’t be a picnic being around a real-life Eeyore, so everyone in my life suffers as well.
So how do I minimize this fear of the future? There are some cold, hard truths that I try to remind myself of when I start catastrophizing:
- Recognize that you’re not being neutral or open-minded. This is always a hard thing for me to swallow. No one wants to be told that they’re being closed-minded, but when you shut out all possibilities but the negative one, that’s tunnel vision. The reality is that you have a 50/50 shot at things going your way in any situation. In fact, if you really think about it, some of the negative outcomes in life are actually neutral. Things may not have turned out like you wanted, but it got you on a path for new possibilities that led to where you are today.
- Don’t discount your resilience. We’ve all been through rough times. It’s important not to forget that you weathered those storms. So far you’ve gotten through everything that’s been thrown at you. There is every reason to believe that you will continue to do so.
- Don’t pretend you’re psychic. I can’t see into the future. I’m always being surprised by what life throws at me. Furthermore, there are just as many good things that I never saw coming as bad ones. While we spend time aimlessly fortune-telling, we’re missing out on one beautiful part of life: experiencing it in the moment. We can’t see what the future holds, but if we try to live life in the present moment, we can find gratitude in simply having a future.
- Don’t plan on being disappointed. Sometimes we’re not planning ahead, we’re just planning on being disappointed. I tell myself I can’t do something because other factors will put the kibosh on it. For instance, I don’t want to go to the gym because it’s too hot with the heaters on in the winter, but I don’t want to go walk around the track in the park because the soccer field is always in use and balls come whizzing across the track. In the end, I end up doing nothing. The thing is, maybe the gym is warm, but you never know until you go. Maybe it will be hot, but I can still get in a good two- or three-mile run on the treadmill without melting. On the other hand, the park is a cool 35 degrees — and I’ve never been hit by a soccer ball, so I’m not sure why I think that’s bound to happen. The third option is to do nothing. That’s actually a lot more disappointing than having to cut my run short because I’m too hot or dodging a soccer ball.
Catastrophizing doesn’t insulate us from disappointment. It can only do one thing: immobilize. It keeps us from pursuing our desires and dreams, it closes us off from opportunity, and robs us of potential joy. Has there ever been a time when catastrophizing served you? Probably not.