These days people are snapping a lot of selfies, those close-up self-portraits taken with a cell-phone camera. Could this activity foretell a coming trend in which more of us turn inward to take close-ups of our psychological self? When we penetrate our psyche, new intelligence about the nature of our suffering is disclosed.
Let’s snap a close-up of the mild-to-serious form of suffering known as worry. Worrywarts abound, and many of them are highly skilled at picturing worst-case scenarios. They’re good at taking snapshots of things that are happening only in their imagination.
Not only do they worry, they worry for nothing much of the time. The things they worry about frequently never happen. So worriers suffer for nothing. That’s at least as bad as working for nothing or crying for nothing.
Worriers produce expectations or visualizations of future problems or calamities. They anticipate being harmed, helpless, defeated, overwhelmed, hurt or disadvantaged in some manner should those problems arise. Worriers also tend to believe that their worry is appropriate because, as we all know, bad things do happen on occasion.
Uncertainty is built into the DNA of life. Unpleasant experiences likely do await us. It’s also possible some disaster or tragedy will befall us. Yet the healthier we are emotionally, the more we’re able to flourish in the present, confident we can handle what life has in store. But some people see the uncertainties of life (or vagaries of fate) as opportunities to suffer right now, in this moment, long before anything bad has happened.
Worriers “play” a game of self-deceit. They think their worries are appropriate, but they have a hidden reason for their worries: They’re making an inner choice to entertain or recycle old unresolved negative emotions. Using their imagination, they compulsively peep into the future in order to suffer in the present. (This compulsion is a product of unresolved inner conflict: while we want consciously to experience what is pleasant, we chose unconsciously to feel negative emotions, unresolved from our past.)
There’re a lot of different things a person can worry about. Let’s look at a few examples.
Gary worries that his girlfriend will reject or abandon him. Jealousy often accompanies his worry. He’s not aware that he’s indulging in the prospect of being rejected or abandoned. He admits that he has problems with worry and jealousy, but he doesn’t recognize where the worry and jealousy come from. These painful feelings arise because of his emotional attachment to rejection and abandonment, two negative emotions that are unresolved from his childhood. He’s compelled to replay and recycle his emotional associations with rejection and abandonment unless he resolves them through deeper awareness.
Gary is also tempted, through his imagination, to produce visualizations of his girlfriend in the embrace of some fellow. Unwittingly, he produces these fantasies for the purpose of intensifying his bittersweet affinity for (hence, attachment to) rejection and abandonment. And the more acutely he worries, the more he is using worry as a psychological defense to cover up his emotional attachments to rejection and abandonment.
Alisa worries she’ll get a poor final grade in the college course she’s enrolled in. Long before Alisa gets her final grade, she’s already suffering with the feeling of doing badly. In the present moment, as she speculates about an outcome months away, she dwells in her imagination on how she’ll feel when she finds out she did badly. What’s going on here? Alisa is likely entertaining the feeling of being criticized or condemned for doing badly. She’s attached to the feeling of criticism (an unresolved emotion from childhood), and unconsciously she’s compelled to continue to feel that emotion in the form of self-criticism. Though her worry is irrational (she is smart and can easily handle the course work), her unconscious determination to continue to experience criticism overrides her rational expectation of doing well. By peering into the future and seeing herself fail, she creates the experience of self-criticism in the present moment.
Larry worries he doesn’t have enough money saved for his retirement. He makes a good salary, has invested his savings wisely, and will be getting a pension. He has ten more years of good earnings before he retires, and he has paid off his house and seen his children through college. Unconsciously, Larry is determined to replay one of his unresolved issues, the negative emotion of feeling weak and helpless. When he worries about money, he’s imaging being unable to take care of himself and his wife. He imagines how he will feel when, short of funds and no longer able to work, he is overwhelmed by bills and other financial obligations.
Unconsciously, he overlooks the fact that his worry is irrational. Instead, he secretly wants to indulge in feeling weak. As part of this, Larry is inclined to experience feelings of lacking in intrinsic value in himself, and so he makes himself emotionally dependent on the sum of his monetary value in order to feel substantial and whole. Now, however, even plenty of money won’t feel like enough because he constantly reverts back to this inner default position which is his attachment to feeling that he lacks value.
Gary, Alisa, and Larry believe their worry is somehow warranted by life’s uncertainties. Occasionally, they might say, “Oh, I worry too much.” But they fail to see the deeper problem, their unconscious willingness to replay (or indulge in) negative emotions having to do, respectively, with rejection, criticism, and feelings of helplessness and unworthiness. We simply hate to see how, in our psyche, we so blatantly act against our best interests. It offends our sensibilities. We can’t believe we would be so blind as to do this to ourselves.
These unconscious dynamics get even more interesting. Not only is worry in itself a way to suffer, it is also employed unconsciously as a defense. Here’s how that works:
Gary’s inner critic, knowing well the dynamics of his psyche, accuses him of wanting to feel rejected: “You like it, don’t you! That’s what you’re looking for, you wimp.” Gary makes this claim in his unconscious defense: “I don’t want to feel rejection or abandonment. Look at how much I worry that it might happen. My worry proves I don’t want to experience those negative emotions.” Gary has to produce plenty of worry in order to make this defense stick.
Reacting to her inner critic, Alisa makes this claim: “I don’t want to feel criticism (or self-criticism) for failing to get a good grade on my course. I am very worried that could happen. My worry proves that I don’t want it to happen.” Alisa has to produce worry, and suffer with it, in order to erect a defense that covers up her attachment to criticism.
Larry is also using worry as a defense. He chooses unconsciously to feel helpless and lacking in intrinsic value. He experiences the need to cover up this self-defeating choice: “Look at how much I worry. That proves I hate feeling helpless and unworthy.” All it proves, though, is his determination to resist becoming more conscious, thereby exposing his attachments to feeling helpless and lacking in value, and in so doing enable himself to resolve these attachments.
We can remove the distress and anxiety of worry when we come to terms with inner truth.