My mother was the original queen of negative “What Ifs.” “What if there’s a tornado?” “What if it rains?” “What if you rip your dress?” “What if you fall?” “What if you things don’t work out?”
If the above story demonstrates my mother’s inability to validate my feelings of excitement or be proud of her daughter with the adventurous spirit, it should also demonstrate one of her other most powerful habits: Worry. My mother was a twenty-time world-champion worrier. I saw evidence of her worrying about my siblings and her grandchildren throughout my childhood but I FELT her worry on me constantly, like she had a second set of eyes that followed me everywhere. Creepy.
But I didn’t know that it was creepy then. I didn’t even know what it was. In fact, the first time I was ever aware of my mother’s worry as a response to my excitement being problematic, I was standing at that pay phone in San Francisco. I felt let-down in her response but I wasn’t sure why. That was just my mom, making sure I was okay, as usual. And then, I walked away from the phone and couldn’t wait to get out of San Francisco.
My mother worried about me. Of course, she worried about all of her children. But one of the major ironies of our relationship was that, though my mother was full of worry, she called ME a “worry-wart.” She harped on me not to worry constantly. Yet, if I complained of a headache, she asked the doctors she worked for to order an EEG (I had four or five EEGs before I was 14). If I had the sniffles, I stayed home from school and was ordered to sleep on the couch all day; I was fed Campbell’s Chicken Noodle Soup and Saltines and Vernor’s Ginger Ale. If there was rumor of a severe storm, we spent the entire night in our basement. Hiking was dangerous because of loose rocks and bugs. Swimming was dangerous because of undertows and waves. Piers were dangerous. Travel was dangerous. Boys, of course, were dangerous because just looking at them could make a girl pregnant. Bras were dangerous because they meant girls were slutty (I never did figure this one out). Wearing miniskirts was SO dangerous, I would be all but dishonored and shunned from the family for doing so.
Obvious to me now, is the fact that MY worry grew from my mother’s worry. I learned to worry hard from my mother. And she was right, I became a worrier, though I’d rather not call myself a “wart” of any kind. I am often still a deep, troubled worrier. I am a disciple of the negative “What Ifs.” My husband and I frequently have the following exchange.
Me: “What if… (something bad)?”
Him: “What if… (something good)?”
It’s a losing battle because neither of us can predict the future, dammit. And, yes, I know, it’s better to be optimistic and expect the best. He does this without trying. I try. Every day, I have to try.
We all know optimism is superior to pessimism if one’s aim is to be happy. None of us can predict the future so… best to expect the best. But just telling someone who worries – deeply, madly and truly worries – to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” is not especially helpful. This is the main advice my mother gave me, “Stop worrying!” But if it was that easy, like flipping a switch, then I would never have started to worry in the first place.
I recently read a book called “Chakras for Beginners” by David Pond [oh, don’t act so surprised Dear Reader who thinks such books are hooey weirdo drivel – I found it wildly interesting]. I have been casually practicing yoga for over 20 years so I’ve heard the concept of chakras thrown around quite a bit by a wide range of instructors in a variety of ways and I thought it was time I finally understood what the hell these people were talking about. In this book, Pond offered some advice about worry that I could finally wrap my head around that finally helped.
Pond (more or less) says to imagine the color of worry. Imagine what worry would sound like if it were a kind of music. What quality of light worry would be. Then, imagine yourself with a gallon of paint that is the exact color of worry in front of a blank canvas. Imagine you are listening to the music of worry and working under the light of worry and you are painting this canvas with the color of worry. You are painting a picture for the person you are worried about. You paint them a picture of your worry. When it is done and dry and ready to give, you wrap it up, put a big bow on it, and send it to your friend, whom you are so worried about, with a note that says: “Here is a picture just for you. It’s what I think of when I think of you. Please hang it in your home where you can see it everyday and you can feel what I feel when I think of you.”
No one would want that picture. The smartest friends would refuse to accept such a “gift.” And yet, the point of the story is, when we worry about someone, the only thing we are giving them is yuck. We are pointing a whole shit-ton of negative energy right in their direction, beaming it at them with the opposite of light.
I read this passage from Pond’s lovely little book for the first time while two people that I love dearly each began going through the Divorce process. I was worried about them. I was deeply worried most days. The moment I read this passage, my worry for them changed. I knew I couldn’t send them that negative energy so I replaced it with positive thoughts of the life of freedom they both have ahead of them. But it still took me a couple of weeks before I fully understood what I could replace my worry with, specifically.
And this understanding happened with my daughter. I worry about my children – just as my mother worried about me – ALL THE TIME. Worrying about your children is part of loving them, right? It’s natural. It’s necessary. It’s what keeps them safe – isn’t it? While both of my children give me plenty of cause to worry, it is my daughter that causes me to worry for her physically every single day. She is a daredevil; a fearless daredevil. She bounces everywhere she goes, like tiggr. If she’s not bouncing, she’s dancing on some edge (literally, if not figuratively) or she’s running or she’s climbing on things. She has ALWAYS been like this. She went to the emergency room for this kind of behavior twice before she was two. She hit her head so many times as a very young child that I seriously considered making her wear a helmet at all times. It was obvious from a ridiculously young age that she loved all types of athletic activities. She wants to play every sport. The more dangerous, the better.
One night, recently, I suggested that we go for a family bike ride on a new (to us) trail. Halfway through the ride, I remembered that there were hills on this new trail. We live in the flattest part of the lower peninsula of Michigan which is already almost as flat as Ohio or Kansas. Flat. So, “hills” are weird and (to me) scary. My daughter has only been riding without her training wheels for a few months. She recently graduated to a bigger bike with a hand-brake for the first time. I wasn’t worried about her going up the hills but as I imagined her going down the hills, my mind painted a picture of her spinning out of control, hitting the brakes too hard, running off the trail, falling ass-over-teakettle and basically, splitting her head open. In my picture, this lovely, sunny family bike ride turned into the worst night of our small family’s life. And I caught myself spiraling down into worry so deeply that my entire mood was shifting. In this moment, I told myself to paint a different picture. “What’s the opposite of worry?” I asked myself. I forced myself to see my daughter flying down that hill at top speed with a smile on her face and in total control of her bike. I forced myself to see her face and posture filled with the thrill of doing something so daring on her own and the confidence doing that daring thing would give her. And that’s when I realized that “confidence” is the opposite of “worry.”
Consider the color of confidence, the music of confidence, the sound of confidence. Consider painting a picture of your confidence in someone and giving that someone your painting to hang in their home. Imagine saying to someone, “this is the picture I see when I think of you.” Wouldn’t this picture make them feel so much… brighter? happier? more optimistic? capable? energized? excited about the future?
My mother was a wonderful woman and a kind and caring and affectionate mother. Like most mothers, she did the best she could do. But if she ever had this kind of confidence in me – or anyone else for that matter – I never knew it. And maybe she did but she didn’t know how to articulate it. Maybe she wanted to feel total confidence but was raised to feel that worry was somehow more authentically loving. But, it’s not.
I am a recovering worrier now. It will take some time to make replacing worry with confidence a habit. But last weekend, I got two chances to practice this new habit.
The first was being present at the birth of my grand-nephew. During the entire “normal” parts of the birth, there was not a moment where I felt worried. I had an over-2-hour drive to the hospital where my niece was in labor. On the way there, I talked loudly and clearly to myself, the universe and my family’s personal angels about what a great, positive birth this was going to be for my niece, about how I would have the strength and the wisdom and the courage to help my niece through this momentous event. By the time I got there, I was ready. I NEVER worried. I had nothing but confidence in my niece, her husband, myself, the Universe, the baby and my family’s angels. When the doctor and the nurse started to talk in concerned tones about my niece’s high blood pressure, I was tempted to worry for half a second. I was so tempted to worry. My painting of worry for my niece started to emerge in my minds-eye and immediately, I shook it away – as easily as an etch-a-sketch – and I replaced that painting with an image of confidence. Pure confidence. When she said, “I CAN’T do this,” I said, with ABSOLUTE confidence, “YES, you can.” And she did!
The truth is, of course, I had nothing at all to do with her actually being able to do it. BUT, I feel strongly that if I had allowed fear and worry and doubt to grip my heart the way it wanted to in that moment, I might have hindered her ability to do it for a short while or I might have made her birth experience much less pleasant and I certainly would have been an enormous hindrance to her husband.
Just like, when my daughter is doing something I deem “wild” or “crazy” and she looks at me with this huge smile and I’m scowling and I can only envision her split-open head or cut-open leg or a trip to the emergency room. I hinder her. I make whatever she is doing less pleasant. I let her down. I don’t validate her feelings of excitement. I’m caught in my own journey of fear. I completely miss her journey of discovery.
The second time I was able to practice my new habit last weekend was at my sister’s house. I started to feel gripped by my need to worry and fear for my sister and for her daughter who was graduating from high school. Though absolutely joyous, this rite of passage was complicated slightly by my sister’s very recent divorce. I felt the urge to worry about their ability to handle the whole thing. And once again, I forced myself to paint a different picture. Total confidence in their strength, their wisdom, their knowledge of themselves, their separate abilities to handle, basically, anything. After all, they are Stevenson girls and come from a long long line of badasses. And, again, though my attitude of confidence-instead-of-worry didn’t really make it possible for them to handle everything, at least it didn’t hinder their utterly graceful badassery.
My ability to replace worry with confidence is a life-altering discovery. I believe this discovery will continue to extend into the life of my family in a thousand positive ways. Just this week, I replaced my worry about my son joining his first full-day summer camp with confidence that he’d be able to make friends, enjoy himself, be open to new experiences (all things he struggles with). He still hated camp. So again, I replaced my worry that we weren’t going to find a solution to this problem with confidence that we could, that he could help me figure out what would make him happy but also fit our needs of having him out of the house so that we can do our jobs. And we did.
It’s hard to let go of worry. Even though the nature of this memoir-esque blog probably makes me seem completely self-involved and self-obsessed, the truth is, like a lot of women, my whole life seems to revolve around caring for others. I care for my children, of course. But, to some degree, I care for my partner as well (though he does more than his fair share of caring for me back). My job requires me to care for my students (and I probably go well beyond the job description in this department) and often my co-workers as well. I have a relatively large extended family that I care for deeply – though I don’t often reach out to them on a daily basis, I think of them more often than most of them realize. The same is true for my widely dispersed network of friends – people I adore – people I don’t see nearly enough but whom I adore just the same. Altogether – from my own small family to my extended family to my friends, to the basic requirements of my work – that’s A LOT of people to worry about. I’ve sent out a whole lot of ugly pictures over the years.
When I imagine what a painting of confidence would look like, I just imagine a bright sun in a beautiful sky. These days, when a friend tells me she’s having a particularly rough time, instead of picking up the paintbrush of worry, I imagine a huge canvas filled with a gloriously bright sun in a beautiful sky. I think, “She’s going to be just fine. I have total confidence in her that she can do this, she can make it through this. She has all the smarts and strength and awesomeness she needs to figure this out.” Instead of being the little black cloud full of worry, ready to rain on my friend at any moment, this picture of confidence helps me be a kind of cheerleader instead.
Paint your pictures and cheer your cheers with love, y’all.