24 Mar 2014
When I was in first grade, I got left behind on a field trip to the National Zoo.
The Amazonia exhibit had just opened and my little group waited with our chaperone for what seemed like hours to walk through the massive jungle exhibit.
As we walked briskly from parking lot to parking lot in search of our bus, I voiced the question that I suspect was on everyone’s mind:
“What if they leave without us?”
“They’re not going to leave with out us.”
When it became clear that they had, in fact, left without us, I was mildly distraught that no one had answered my question or offered a contingency plan.
Ultimately, we sat and waited at the visitor’s center for a while. Our chaperone called the school (this was pre-cell phone, of course) and then bought us all some ice cream. Eventually another chaperone came to pick us up and drive us back to school. We missed half of math class and were briefly notorious as the kids who got left at the zoo.
This was somewhere in a series of events during my childhood where I expressed concerns about something going wrong, and then they did. What if my grandfather’s little motor boat ran out of gas? What if my grandmother’s car broke down on the way to our summer camp at the Y?
What I probably should have learned was that, by and large, these things work out. I am not still living at the National Zoo, drifting in a motor boat with a hinky gas meter, or stranded on the side of a Florida highway.
Instead, what I took away from these moments was that I should probably stop asking “what if” questions out loud. My superstitious little brain believed that saying these things was what had caused them to come true. I had a secret superpower, and it wasn’t a cool one like flying or being invisible.
So for a few years, I tried to keep all the what-ifs in my head. Sometimes thinking of one would cause another to pop up, but I did my best to keep them to myself. With my silence, I could prevent things from going wrong.
This is how you become “a worrier”.
A few years later, something shifted. I saw that this was ridiculous—clearly, I did not have the ability to make cars break down simply by giving voice to thought. Nor had my silence somehow prevented all bad things from happening. Weird, right?
Instead, I reinterpreted these events as an adept ability to foresee potential problems. I had predicted the Great Zoo Abandonment of 1992. Because I was a child, no one had taken my concerns seriously, but now that I was older—in high school, college, an “adult”—I had more control over the variables and thus, the outcomes. My ability to see potential minefields was a skill; it made me an effective planner, a dedicated student, and well-prepared employee.
Or rather, I thought it did.
Herein lies the catch-22 of stress. You get stuck in a feedback loop: you’re stressed, which propels you to succeed, which validates your stress. When you fail, you simply weren’t worried about the right things—you didn’t stress enough.
The stress, the busyness, the importance of getting everything right—that becomes a part of who you are.
What if you didn’t stress? Would you still be productive? What if you didn’t worry about all the things? Would you still be able to identify actual problems before they became full-blown crises?
These are the what-if questions I’ve been asking myself over the last few years. For me, stress is like a bad habit—it’s not my only means of dealing with uncertainty, but for a very long time, it was almost always my first approach.
I haven’t totally figured this out yet, and honestly, I’m not sure I ever will. It’s something I’m working on though. I try to remember that there’s a difference between stressing and planning, despite how often I’ve conflated the two, and that when problems arise, I’m a lot better at solving them when my fight-or-flight response isn’t kicked into high gear.
When something becomes so deeply engrained, it can be hard to separate cause and effect. I’m finally starting to see that maybe the stress isn’t what pushed me to do well. Maybe it wasn’t a skill—maybe the stress was just noise.