As a professional worrier, I feel I have the authority to say that telling a worrier to think positively is as helpful as telling a sniper to loosen up. This is not only useless advice, it actually makes worriers more worried. You see, worry is a strategy we use to adapt to reality, which to us, feels uncertain, threatening, dangerous and harmful. The more a worrier worries, the safer we feel. You know what scares us? “Being positive.” If we were to start “being positive” we’d stop worrying, and worrying is what keeps our loved ones alive, the plane from crashing and our lab results from coming up terminal. Worry protects us; it keeps us safe. It’s our life-vest and telling us to be positive is asking us to remove the thing that keeps us afloat. You want us to be positive? Okay, then you go be anxious because SOMEONE HAS GOT TO WORRY OR THE WORLD WILL EXPLODE, AND MELT INTO LAVA AND FLAMES.
One of anxiety’s hallmarks is a fear of uncertainty. Worry tricks us into believing that worry will reduce this uncertainty. We become convinced that we are controlling our environment when we worry. Telling us to stop doing this is useless and naive. The truth is, worry is an avoidance technique. Worrying helps us avoid the thing we most fear. If you ask a worrier when they are actively worried, what they are most afraid will happen, they’ll be hard-pressed to tell you, truly, what they are afraid of.
When I ran my series Happy Ending, I had to get onstage and perform. I was terrified, but I did it because despite having a panic disorder, I was also born with a need to perform, so it’s also exhilarating. But I was always afraid of bombing. If you asked me what I feared the most about doing badly onstage, I would have said: “I’ll die.” But that wasn’t actually the fear. I was too anxious to even allow myself to think of my real fear. Anxiety is a tool we employ to avoid thinking of the worst case scenario.
My actual fear of bombing would have been that I would have been exposing, to the entire audience, that I am fundamentally flawed. That I’m not good at the thing I pretend I’m good at, that I don’t belong on stage, that someone else would do whatever I’m trying to do much much better than me. My actual fear was that I would be revealed as an
The truth is, telling someone to “look on the bright side,” is a way to help them escape their worries, not confront them. Aphorisms like “You just need to love yourself” or “You need to believe in yourself how I believe in you” are techniques that set the worrier up for more worrying. The worrier is scared of uncertainty. When they’re terrified, they’re stuck at one end of an extreme, and you’re trying to make them feel better by pulling them to the other side of the extreme, but where they need to be is in the uncertain middle. We need to help our anxious friends and loved ones learn that uncertainty is not dangerous. That it’s okay to feel afraid. The only way we can move through our fears is if we move toward them, not catapult over them. Perhaps, they are not the only ones afraid of the uncertain middle.