We’re great worriers in our family. I mean this: we are real champion worriers. If the thing we are worrying about manages to resolve itself, we can transfer our worry to something new in a fraction of a second. We all have the worrying skill, and just in case any of us become rusty, we are good at reminding each other to worry a bit more.
Of course worrying has been useful. You could say my husband and I have built part of our careers around it: it is partly our attention to detail, our obsessiveness, our refusal to let it rest, that has made us so successful. We are classic middle-managers, endlessly training, supervising, implementing and reporting. Worry is the defining characteristic that keeps us productive year after year in the same line of work.
We like our children to worry, if it is about the right things. “He doesn’t seem to be worrying enough about doing his revision.” we say about Duncan. “If he worried less about his appearance and more about getting to school on time…”
In fact both children are extremely good at worrying. Duncan is worrying himself sick about exams, all by himself, without any help from us. His sister, Julie, of course, is the greatest worrier of us all: she can invent completely imaginary threats to worry about. Her worries can be crippling, cutting her off from the rest of us, and making her harm herself.
The sign of a really good worrier is the ability to have more than worry on the go at once. The classic worrier has a real worry and a displacement worry. I really worry about my children, for example, but I am very good at ostensibly worrying about the bindweed in my garden. I see the same ability in my son: Duncan worried about a mock exam, but after he had sat it and been given an A grade, he started worrying that it had not been hard enough. I realised then that the exams were his displacement worry; the task now for him is to find out what his real worry is.
At home, I am experimenting with something called the worry tree. The gist of this is “If you can’t do something about it, don’t worry about it; if you can do something about it, then do it.”. You follow a short tree of questions to sort your worry into one of a few boxes. It’s like sorting laundry. Can I do something about the bindweed? Yes, I can, so write an action plan. Can I tackle it now? No, it’s raining. Make a note to do it when it’s dry.
So far, just like the laundry, no one else in the family has mastered this.