My husband and I are both Engineers. We don’t like surprises. We’re extremely thorough and we plan everything. We’re both wasting large amounts of time worrying about the possibility that we may have developed the wrong plans. These thoughts and worries are increasing over time. I’m concerned this will continue on to become something more neurotic. Do you have any suggestions for curbing this type of behaviour?
Shouldacouldawoulda. You’re engineering yourself some agony and you don’t need to curb it, you only need to understand it. Because once you truly understand it you’ll realize that it has no power over you whatsoever. Let’s break it down into components.
Firstly—you and your husband were attracted to your profession for good reason. Early experiences shape our thinking. The patterns in that thinking naturally suit certain jobs whereas others will feel entirely foreign and uncomfortable.
If you both liked engineering then it makes sense that you would also like to calculate all of your variables as a way of predicting your success. Engineers like things known. They like things to add up. They like things to fit neatly into formulas suitable for analysis.
People with minds for engineering often like to be able to gauge and verify and calculate their benefits. And up until now you had calculated that your planning paid off. But now the math is getting skinny and you’re not so sure. I agree that it’s worth a second look.
Yes we should live in-the-moment, and yes one of the things we can do in this moment is plan for a future moment. But we can’t get attached to those plans.
Some ideas are so consistent that we do live as though they are certain. Every morning I get up I assume the floor will still be there when I put my feet down. I do not however assume that I’ll win the lottery. And most of life is somewhere between the two. The question is, where is the healthiest place to put your line about what’s possible?
Of course, anyone’s line can move at any moment so it’s not like this is a decision that has to be made and applied to all contexts. We can have our line be here one day, and somewhere else the next.
That said, to function we absolutely do need some indication as to when we’re wasting our energy or hurting our potential overall results. If we waste hours and hours worrying about an event that has very low odds of happening, then we know it’s very unlikely to pay off.
But some consideration of the potential downsides is worthwhile. Deep down most of us know when we’ve passed ‘healthy.’ When the suffering from the worrying is exceeding the relief from the avoidance of actual issues.
Seeing potential pitfalls and building in safeguards is fine. But pure worry is a complete waste of energy because it isn’t changing anything except for lowering our resilience.
It also makes sense that this sensation would be building. Engineers tend to look at each subject exhaustively. But that just gives you way more starting points for a self-discussion about what might go wrong.
If there’s too many details they end up like tripwires for our thinking. Each one’s a little canyon we can chase our own thoughts down. The more details the more canyons. And of course canyon’s beget canyons. Each new one has subsidiaries that also need exploration. Can you see how this maze you’re in gets bigger by thinking, not smaller?
The trickiest part of this will be for you to get comfortable with the discomfort of the unknown. Since it’s your nature anyway, I would suggest you consider selling yourself on the idea because it makes mathematical sense.
If every possibility can then be refined into smaller and smaller potential futures, then it only makes sense that your thinking will get busier the longer you do it. The canyons and sub-canyons will always exist.
The answer isn’t that we nervously leave some unexplored. Rather it’s more than we can come to earnestly recognize the futility of the calculations in the first place. Can some things be reasonably predicted? Yeah. But are most way harder to predict than most people guess? Yeah again. So surrender.
Realize that you can get more joy by having fun rather than doing insane amounts of calculations in the vain hope that they will protect you from the real three-dimensional world out there.
Life is best focused on collecting its rewards, as opposed to avoiding suffering. There is a certain amount of pain that is mandatory. Trying to avoid it will only incur more pain.
Stop the course of your mind. Go quiet and observe. What you notice will be much more valuable than what you calculate.
Enjoy your day.
A serious childhood brain injury lead Scott to spend his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and identity. It made others as strange to him as he was to them. When he realized people were confused by their own over-thinking, Scott began teaching others to understand reality. He is currently CBC Radio Active’s Wellness Columnist, as well as a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.