Letting Go of the Potential Problems of Tomorrow
Today is enough
I’m a worrier.
When I was young, anxiety set in anytime my parents were gone for even a minute longer than they said. The later they got home, the more I worried.
As I got older, I worried less about when my parents would get home and more about what my friends were doing without me.
When I became an adult, I started worrying less about what my friends were doing and more about the problems of the future: education, employment, providing for my wife and children, being a good citizen, taking care of myself.
Many children face almost unimaginable difficulty growing up. They worry about going to bed hungry or growing up in a home with an abusive or absent parent. Maybe they worry about violence outside the home.
Many adults face the challenge of providing sufficient means to maintain a family, and many struggle with addictions that prevent them from holding a job or caring for family members.
While adult problems appear heavier than the problems of youth, I think it’s mostly a matter of perspective. Does the child who goes to bed hungry worry any less than the adult who can’t provide for them?
Those are real problems; problems that need urgent attention on a societal level. Those are the problems that are truly heartbreaking.
There are other problems, however, that are not among the urgent, important, or consequential. Oddly, though, they are problems that can (and often do) consume a great deal of mental processing power. They are the problems that have a way of latching onto our brains in a way that makes them appear bigger than they are largely because of a lack of emotional wisdom.
Therein lies the problem. When a non-urgent, unimportant thing latches onto our brains, more often than not it gains a strong foothold because of the novelty of the problem.
For example, suppose you’re a non-confrontational person who gets involved in a heated discussion with a coworker over something trivial. At first, you try to diffuse the situation, but they’re relentless. Eventually, you respond explosively. Now, what started out as a little thing has turned into an enormous mountain to climb.
Perhaps your coworker is accustomed to that kind of exchange in their life so the whole experience rolls of their back. You, on the other hand, settle quickly into a cycle of rumination — replaying the argument and your response over and over again. You’re distracted through the rest of your work day and you take the problem home with you. Maybe it even keeps you up that night.
If you’re like me, you may continue to ruminate on the experience for weeks or months, letting it canker the relationship you once had with the coworker.
Breaking the Cycle
Remember: the thoughts we entertain are reinforced when we ruminate. Rumination on one type of thought means similar thoughts will also likely lead to rumination.
It’s a vicious, but breakable cycle, and these six steps are useful in breaking it.
- Give yourself grace. If you’ve spent your life preoccupied with this way of thinking, it’s going to take time to change. So, take it easy on yourself. Celebrate victories over worry, even when they’re brief.
- Recognize that conflict is part of life. Conflict will arise whether you like it or not. Part of breaking the cycle is in recognizing that it will happen and that many times the problems of tomorrow can be avoided by addressing them today.
- Challenge the thought. Question whether you’re actually responsible for whatever situation resulted in the line of thinking trying to gain a foothold. Challenge the validity of any assumptions you’ve made. Even if you are responsible, taking time to challenge the thought can lead to quicker resolution.
- Plan and take action. If the situation needs to be addressed, then make a plan to address it. While keeping #1 in mind, don’t allow yourself to wallow in negative thought. Make a plan. Perhaps the plan is to do nothing, but if that’s the course of action you choose, continue to challenge the thoughts until you’re able to move forward.
- Distract yourself. Once you’ve made a plan, do something that makes you happy and that helps you relax until you can execute the plan. Maybe that’s spending time with a trusted friend (as long as you don’t gossip about your problem). Maybe it’s a walk in nature. Maybe it’s meditation. Whatever it is, make space for your brain to move on.
- Try therapy. We live in a crazy time when we’re accosted on every side by challenging personalities and situations. Sometimes, the pressure is too much to handle on your own. This is where an objective mentor or therapist can really help. Most friends will probably help you justify your position because they care about you, but that’s rarely what you need. An advisor, mentor, or therapist can help you take a step back and look at the situation with a little more objectivity. That’ll make it easier to break the cycle.
Remember, it’s a process. Be kind to yourself even when you falter and fall back into rumination. The more you practice not ruminating, the better off you’ll be, and the easier it’ll be to let go of the problems of tomorrow.
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