Outcomes Are Bullshit: Letting Go of Anxiety

by Tim Arendse on July 23

OutcomesAreBullshitMy buddy calls it “the nervies”. He first told me about it while we were waiting to do our provincial Emergency Medical Responder exams. In these exams, you had to go in front of a panel of paramedics and treat an imaginary patient. If you do well, you get your license and you’re allowed to legally work as an EMR (the lowest position on the EMS totem pole). It’s a dreadful experience. Thankfully, my imaginary patients went on to live happy and prosperous lives, while my friend somehow managed to kill two out of three. Don’t worry; he gave up his dreams of EMS shortly thereafter.

What my friend calls “the nervies” is anxiety, felt in the pit of your stomach. The more attached you are to an outcome, the worse it gets. It can make you act really weird around a person you’re attracted to, get you to lose your composure on a job interview, or even make you draw a blank on an important exam. When life starts to veer away from the outcome you want, anxiety pops up to say “Hello”. Ironically, this is usually an internal battle. The thing you’re feeling anxious over hasn’t even happened.

How it starts

Despite my intentions, I can’t write an article that pleases everyone. My fear is that it pleases no one. What if my writing brings nothing but ire and even my mom, the last bastion of hope, reads one of my articles and shakes her head in shame?

I know that’s an irrational fear. My mom has made it pretty clear that she loves everything that I create, and few things are universally hated.

I work in agriculture, and it’s rarely relaxing. What if a hailstorm destroys our crops and we have nothing to sell? What if things just don’t grow? What if no one is buying?

In short, my business would be ruined, my kids would go hungry, my wife would take them to her sisters, and I’d be found face down in a ditch. At least that’s how my mind works. It glosses right over “Things working out OK” to “Worst possible outcome”.

Maybe your spouse called you and said, “I want to talk about something later”, in that voice. Maybe a meeting was announced at work, and you suspect that there might be layoffs in the future. Maybe you’ve been working on a potential client and you really hope they’re going to go for your product.

No matter what, the reaction is the same: bad anxiety.

Anxiety that helps you survive, anxiety that crushes your dreams

Anxiety isn’t entirely useless; it saved my butt all through high school. The deadline would loom, I’d panic, and suddenly the assignment was done. It also prevents me from taking stupid risks, such as trying to beat a train at the crossing or climbing into the bear exhibit at the zoo.

When our ancestors lived on the savannah, anxiety was a survival mechanism. You didn’t venture out if you thought there might be a big cat lurking in the tall grass. You wouldn’t get too close to the cliff side because you never know when it would break away.

While for many people these are still real concerns, we’ve eliminated most of the threats our ancestors had to deal with. However, our brains are still wired for a world that’s long gone.

This is where bad anxiety comes into play. Bad anxiety hits when you start to worry about things you can’t control or are extremely unlikely to happen. It’s no longer a survival mechanism; it’s time travel. Your body is present but your mind is 90% in some future that hasn’t and probably won’t occur. How can you possibly function like that?

The Road to Recovery

Recovering from anxiety requires you to recognize how much control you have over the outcome.

In A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy, William Irvine talks about degrees of control:

1.     Complete control

2.     Some control but not complete control

3.     No control

For example, I have complete control over whether I eat healthy or not. I don’t have complete control over my health.

Not having complete control is what causes the issue. Sometimes you have influence (if I eat a lot of garbage, I’ll increase my chances of disease) and other times, you have none (deteriorating health is a fact of life, no matter how healthy you eat).

I’m a manager in my job and I tend to feel anxiety when it comes to people. What if I ask someone to do something and they simply reply, “Nope, not doing it”. That imagined scenario alone has caused countless hours of anxiety. Over nine years, I can recall it happening one time. Was that one instance worth all that stress? All that energy circled the drain, all because I was scared of what someone might say.

Once you start time traveling, you give away all your power. Would you want to work for someone who shudders in fear every time you interact with them? My words and actions were carefully balanced so as to get the work done but avoid rejection. I would quietly exhale each time after a person said, “Ok, I’ll do that”. I felt like an imposter after every interaction.

Next time you feel this way, decide what degree of control you have. If you have complete control, get up and do what you have to do. If you have some but not complete control, do what you can. If you have no control, waste no time thinking about it. Just like attaching to an outcome, deciding your degree of control is a habit. Eventually, you won’t worry about things outside of your control at all.

On a particularly stormy night, I decided that our crop was finished. The dreaded day had come. I had to make a career change — pronto! I made a list of my skills, wrote down an income I’d be satisfied with, and looked up the provincial wages for trades. I decided to become a millwright. The kids would see me less but they’d understand. This was no longer about what people wanted; it was survival. I ordered a few millwright books from Amazon and tried to get some sleep.

As it turned out, the crops were unharmed and the millwright books made terrific paperweights. Aside from my bruised ego, everything turned out just fine. Anxiety (or more specifically, attaching to an outcome) makes fools of us all.  

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Tim Arendse

When he’s not playing with his kids, Tim is finding new ways to make his life more efficient. He likes to draw inspiration from unlikely sources, like Minecraft, and is willing to explore almost any paradigm if he thinks there’s something to learn. He also hates bananas, loves candy, and holds strong opinions about the best brand of beer.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Sue Rawlinson July 24, 2015 at 1:54 am

I really enjoyed the article. As I was reading it, I thought of a lovely Australian film that was made ten years ago, called “Look both ways” with a popular Australian actor and writer called William MacInness. It is about a couple of people who are beset with awful anxieties and over-ripe imaginations. Featuring snippets of animation which are quiet enchanting, it is a humorous and sympathetic portrayal of people attempting to live with anxiety.
Highly recommended.
Best of luck, Tim, with future cops.
Cheers,
Sue

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Tim July 24, 2015 at 11:16 am

Glad you enjoyed the article, Sue, and thank you for the movie recommendation!

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Jason July 24, 2015 at 4:51 am

Love this article. This is such an important mindset for the modern age. With so many intense variables in an expanding population and the accelerating world, practicing quantum yoga is nearly the only way to breathe. That is being flexible to all pathways life throws at us. I used to suffer event anxiety and to some extent still do, however practicing self kindness, and mindfulness of my inner dialogue, I now perform poetry regularly and am enjoying my life to the fullest. I think this was my biggest step because the things that I could control caused me the most anxiety and self judgement. At any fate, thanks for sharing this article Tim! Blessed be the farmers!

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Tim July 24, 2015 at 11:28 am

Thanks Jason!

Regarding self-kindness and positive inner dialogue, I like to use gratitude journaling. Write down the good things that happen in your day and how you were responsible for creating those moments. I try to write them down immediately after I recognize them. This trains your mind to pay attention to those things. Just another tool in your toolbox.

Do you have any tricks for self-kindness and positive inner dialogue?

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