I’ve been a worrier for as long as I can remember. When I was in college, my therapist gave me one of the most helpful explanations for how to deal with worry that I have ever heard, and it has stuck with me to this day. She suggested that I think about my worries like birds. She said, “Let the birds fly over, but don’t let them build a nest in your hair.” In other words, instead of holding on to worried thoughts, just let them pass by and move on to something else.
I believe that we have very little control over the thoughts that pop into our heads. Surely I’m not the only one who has had thoughts pop into their heads like “I wonder what it would be like if I drove off this bridge right now” or “If I was going to murder someone, I think I’d do it like this” or similar thoughts that are extreme and disconnected from reality. The truth is, we each have millions of thoughts that come into our minds each day. Most of them are not interesting or important, and we let them leave as quickly as they arrive.
Occasionally, though, we choose to hold onto one of those thoughts that don’t really matter, and this can cause a lot of unnecessary worry. When the thoughts are about our relationships, they can lead to unnecessary conflict as well.
It works like this: a minor thought flits into your mind, like, “Jim forgot to put the cap back on the toothpaste yesterday.” Instead of letting it go and moving on to something else, you hold onto the thought and start to elaborate on it. “Come to think of it, he has forgotten to put the cap back on all week! I should talk to him about this!” As you focus on the thought, it gets bigger and bigger in your mind. Soon you are wondering how Jim could be such an inconsiderate jerk as to consistently do something so irritating, and wondering whether he cares about you at all, because clearly if he cared about you, he would pay closer attention to his behavior. Notice that Jim is not even in the room, but based on one small thought, you are very angry with him and doubting your entire relationship. Unless reason intrudes before you see Jim again, it may even turn into a heated discussion about his lack of consideration. If this process (and its results) sound crazy, that’s because they are. That doesn’t mean, though, that this type of thinking is rare. Sadly, this process is extremely easy to fall into, and it feels perfectly reasonable when you are doing it.
How do you avoid this type of unnecessary worry and strain on your relationship? Like so many things in relationships, the answer is simple and difficult to follow through on. You need to let the birds fly over instead of nesting. When a thought comes into your mind that is not important, don’t focus on it or pretend it doesn’t exist. Instead, acknowledge the thought (“Yes, it was irritating that he forgot the toothpaste lid”), then let it go and move on to other thoughts. There is no risk in doing this because if the thought is important, it will not go away forever. It will come back over and over, possibly in slightly different forms, which will be your clue that what seemed like a minor thought is actually part of a larger issue. In most cases, though, the thought will not return and you will have avoided strain on yourself and on your relationship.
A Note about Counseling
By the way, since I’ve mentioned going to therapy, I want to make a quick note about counseling. I’m a firm believer that people who recognize their need for help and take help when they need it are stronger than those who pretend they don’t need help and fail to reach out for the resources available to them. As a teacher, I occasionally see students who fail classes because they refuse to discuss their struggles with their teachers or accept tutoring when they need it, and I think a similar thing happens with therapy. It’s tempting to think that admitting you need help is a kind of failure, when in reality failure is much more likely when you don’t take advantage of the resources available to you. Marriage counselors often complain that couples only come to them when they have waiting so long that the relationship is already on the brink of being beyond repair, when if they had only come earlier, the process could have been much easier and more likely to turn the relationship around. If you would like to go to counseling but money is a factor, many universities and churches offer free or extremely cheap counseling, and many therapists offer sliding scales for payment based on ability to pay. So if you think counseling would be helpful for you, don’t let pride or fear of judgment hold you back. I learned many things in the counseling I went to in college, and I have never regretted my decision to get help when I needed it.