Note: This blog post builds on a previous blog post called “The end to writer’s block,” which you might want to read first.
The tagline on my Twitter and website is “learning about writing is learning about life,” and that idea is inspired by Bill Kenower’s book Fearless Writing. I’d been really impressed with Bill’s point in Fearless Writing that writer’s block is caused when you ask your powerful imagination to show you a world in which no one likes what you’re writing. Your powerful imagination is so strong, you’ll be convinced that this scenario is real, and of course it’s impossible to keep writing when your efforts seem doomed to fail.
But once you understand what you’ve done—you’ve invited your imagination to show you what you most fear—you can ask your imagination to answer different questions, such as “What do I want to write about?” and “Have I said it?” Those are questions that suddenly make it easy for you to keep writing.
It took me about two months to make a connection between that concept in the realm of writing and the mechanism of worry in the realm of everyday life.
I am a worrier. I’m very good at it. In fact, I am an expert at worry.
But worry is just like writer’s block. Worry is asking my powerful imagination to show me a world that I fear. Maybe a world in which my back pain never goes away. Or a world in which my husband dies. Or in which I lose my job. You can see how many questions I could potentially ask my imagination that would paralyze me with worry. And our imaginations are so good at what they do, what they show us feels just as real as things that actually happen, so my emotional response to imagined scenarios can be overwhelming.
But once I understood that I had created the situations that made me feel so bad—by asking my imagination questions that made me suffer—I realized I could simply ask different questions.
For instance, I’ve been very worried about someone close to me who struggles with mental illness and alcoholism. It’s easy to ask my powerful imagination to show me what it would look like if he dies or is never able to function again. However, other intractable problems in my life have improved unexpectedly years later—why couldn’t this be the same? I’ve started asking my imagination to come up with a scenario in which his life gets much, much better. And it helps. It doesn’t make my fears disappear, but it makes them more manageable, less inevitable, less powerful.
When I start to worry, I can notice what I’m doing and ask my imagination to show me something else—a good outcome instead of a bad one. Neither one is real, so one is just as likely as the other.
You might say it’s unrealistic, pie-in-the-sky, Pollyanna thinking. That’s one way of looking at it. But if neither thing has happened yet, and I’m just making things up, I can see the value in making up a positive narrative to parallel or replace the scary narratives. I can’t help but notice that usually the worst case scenario that my imagination shows me doesn’t actually happen. But it feels like they happen all the time because I imagine them so much.
When I compare my worries to actual outcomes, it actually seems more valid to picture positive scenarios, which are more likely to occur in my experience. And even if they don’t, at least I only have to suffer once instead of many, many times.
I’ll note that the key here is that I’m not suggesting that you simply tell yourself, “Stop worrying.” As you probably know if you, too, are an expert on worry, that doesn’t work. You can’t replace something with nothing. Even though you know it’s true and worrying is not good for you, telling yourself to stop is useless. One time someone told me, “Worrying is like a rocking chair. You feel like you’re doing something, but you’re not getting anywhere.” That made me want to slap the person who said it in the face.
Of course I know it’s useless—in fact, worse than that—harmful. But knowing that doesn’t make it possible to stop worrying If you tell your mind to empty, the worries just flood back in to fill the void. The reason why asking your imagination to picture a positive scenario works, at least sometimes, is that you are giving your mind something different to chew on. Your mind must think—you can’t stop that—but you do have the power to direct what your mind thinks about. You are more powerful than you know. You can point your mind in a new direction, and the difference in your lived experience can be profound.