:: I’m afraid my career is trash—Is there anything I can do about it? Will writing 25 books make me feel better? No. It will not. Expressing gratitude helped me see not only that I needed to ride out the anxiety wave. It also helped me see that I could.
Many years ago I was in a difficult workplace. The program was new, and under a lot of pressure, and the growing pains were putting a lot of pressure on the more experienced workers, like me and my friend Portia. Portia and I would meet up a lot to vent, just to release some of that pressure.
After a while though, we realized the venting wasn’t enough. In fact, the venting was only making things worse, a reiteration of things that we already knew were bad, and we didn’t feel better afterward. So we came up with this idea: We called them action plans, or “APs” for short.
The rule of APs was this: we were allowed to vent, but after each venting session, we had to sit down and make an AP, a list of things we would do to make things better. They could be small things, especially if we were venting about things we didn’t have much control over. But the process worked. We vented, we made our APs, and we did the APs, and things got better, albeit slowly.
Mostly, we felt better, less powerless.
Fast forward eleventy years, and I left Portia and that workplace a long time ago, but I never forgot the APs. But, I didn’t implement them. I let them fade away along with the stress that workplace created. I just didn’t need them anymore? Right? Ha. No.
One day in my therapist’s office, my therapist gave me her “Worry Chart,” a flowchart for when you are worrying relentlessly about something.
This was back in 2022, and I’m telling you the date so that you can spot the pattern of me catching on slowly to things (see, for example, the title of this essay).
The main steps of the flowchart that really matter are the very first three:
[What are you worrying about?]
[Can you do anything about it?]
[Yes?] > [Do that thing.]
[No?] > [Stop worrying about it until you can.]
I goes on from there, but for me, if I could get through those first three steps, I was golden. At least for a while.
The first step was, for me, was amazing. What are you worrying about? To just solidify the inchoate mass, the black cloud, the murmuring voices of worry into specific words made a huge difference. I’m worrying about X. or Y. or Z.
Give the devil a name. And then you can smack that devil down.
And it worked well for a while.
I’ve always kept a journal. I’m a fan of what I started calling “cross-pollination” in graduate school, so my journal is a mix of diary, notes on projects, and to-do lists, all in one place.
For example, I’ll be working ideas for a book. The next day, l’ll flip to the next page and reflect on an event that happened, and then that event will end up in a book. You get the picture.
I often write down things I’m worried about. Research shows, in fact, that this kind of writing helps people with anxiety and other mental disabilities.
So, after my therapist gave me the worry chart, when I was tripping over my anxieties, I started writing down these words in my journal, “What Am I Worried About?” And then, using that prompt, I simmered them down into words. And that process really helped. No more black cloud. Give the devil a name.
But then, I started doing it wrong.
I started making lists. Lists are not my friend.
I’d open up my journal and write these Very Bad Words: “Things I’m worried about.” And then I’d write a litany of things that are freaking me out. And by the end of the list, I was more freaked out than I was at the beginning.
By writing the list, I’d built a wall of worries and trapped myself inside it. I wasn’t following the flowchart. I knew what the worries were (I thought). But then I’d just stopped at step 1 of the worry chart. Oops.
It took me a year to figure out was I was doing. Part of the problem was that my therapist moved away, and I had a gap when I was left to my own devices, which aren’t super.
Then I found a new therapist. When I told her about the lists of worries, the face she made was like a cow farted in the room. She wouldn’t even let me read it aloud to her.
I stopped writing in my journal because it only made things worse, which made me sad, because I love my journal. I still carried it with me everywhere, but it felt like a burden rather than a peaceful place.
Then I remembered Portia and our action plans.
So, the other day, I picked One Worry. I wrote it out. I described it, naming all of its parts and pieces. What am I worried about. I dug deep. I didn’t just list it. And that’s when I realized that my lists were not actually Step 1 of the worry chart; they were oversimplified.
For example, I wrote, “I’m worried that I’m writing my novel too slowly.” But when I dug into it, I realized that I thought I was worried that I needed to finish my book faster, but when I wrote the word “because” and tried to finish that sentence I came up with nothing.
I didn’t actually know why. So I wrote about why. What, on earth, was I worried about?
I was worried that my agent would lose interest. I was worried that I’d miss the fall submission deadlines. I was worried, of course, that it was a bad book. I was worried it would never get published. I was worried that the reason it took so long to write was because it was a bad book. I was worried I was a bad writer.
The deeper I dug, the more I ended up at the same worries I’ve always had. My career. It’s a house of cards.
Anyways, the next step! That’s easy, right? Can I do something? Of course I can! The worry chart and the action plan coalesce into perfection! So what did I do? I wrote another list.
I listed all of the things that I was going to do to ensure the success of this book (and, of course, my career). I wrote the world’s longest list, and what did I end up with? Another awful wall, closing me in. Of course I did. That’s what anxiety does. It tries to control things. When I’m terrified of an awful outcome, if I let anxiety take over, I will try to ensure that outcome doesn’t happen.
I fixed step one of the worry chart, but step two? “Can you do anything about it?” My precious action plans from all those years ago? That’s where things fell apart.
And then, two weeks ago, somewhere online, I encountered, for the 1 billionth time, writing about gratitude. You guys. I struggle with things like gratitude and anything that sounds remotely woo and doesn’t align with my glass-2/3rds-empty view of the word because of the seriously traumatic shit I’ve been through. Like, yeah, I’m grateful for what I’ve got, but no, I can’t let go of this darkness because if I do I won’t know who I am.
I’ve poo-poo’d (and that’s putting it mildly) yoga, meditation, optimism, you name it, and gratitude is swept up in that.
Until, for each of then, my friends who are as dark as I am, who also write “Planet Terrible” on forms where it says “Place of Birth,” tell me, “Katie Rose Pryal, I’m telling you, it works.”
One friend convinced me to try meditation, and it works. It does. I have no other explanation for you, but when all of the horse hockey is hitting the ceiling fan, I sit down, picture a flipping candle, and tell the voices screaming in my head to shut the fk up, and it works. End of.
Obviously, I was desperate, or I wouldn’t have tried it. I was sitting there, looking in my journal at the gorgeous work I’d done finally digging into my worry and identifying it, and the awful work I’d done writing out what I was going to do about it, writing that only made feel worse.
So I forced myself to write these painful words: “But I’m grateful for…”
And then I wrote a paragraph about the things I’m grateful for about my writing career. I’m not going to list them here because it will sound an awful lot like bragging. After all, gratitude is a recounting of the good stuff, and in private it’s okay, but in public it does sound like boasting and lord help us if we ever talk about our own achievements in public. (I think we should do more of that, but that argument is for another letter.)
The point is, it worked. Like, holy crap, did it work. I was in a coffee shop, and as I finished, I started crying. CRYING. What. Why. The damn just broke. All of that worry that I’d identified, that I then walled in with my immense controlling to-do list? The gratitude? It punched a hole through that wall. And tears washed it all away.
The worry chart asks: Is there anything you can do about it? Y/N? And I answered the question wrong. The answer was no.
I’m afraid my career is trash—Is there anything I can do about it? Will writing 25 books make me feel better? No. It will not. (If you were wondering about this yourself, let me save you some therapy money.)
Expressing gratitude helped me see not only that I needed to ride out the anxiety wave. It also helped me see that I could.
So yeah, I’m late to the gratitude game, but I’m glad I’m finally on the court.
So what about you? Here are the steps that I’ve figured out through trial and error so you don’t have to:
- What are you worried about? Take that black cloud of worry and write about it. Dig deep. Then deeper still. Family, work, hobby, whatever. It might take 500 words before you ever get to the root of the worry.
- As yourself this question: Is there anything I can do about it? Y/N? The answer, almost always, is No.(Anxiety lies! It lies!) You might get a partial yes. But don’t be fooled by anxiety telling you that you can control outcomes with just a little more something or another. You can’t. Ugh. I learned it the hard way. If you have trouble letting go of the anxiety, talk to someone. Get help. Anxiety is a monster.
- Finally, ask yourself this question: What am I grateful for with regards to what I’m worried about? This is weird! I realize that. “My son is doing awful in math. What am I grateful for?” “My book got rejected by all the publishers. What am I grateful for?” Seriously. It’s not easy. BUT! It works! I promise. I’ve done it. You might cry. In public. “I’m grateful that I have a beautiful son. He is kind. He is funny. He is …” I dare you not to cry.
It took me so much wrestling with myself to figure out how to do this, so I’m hoping you can skip that step and find something that helps you.
The best to you. -Katie