Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional. - Haruki Murakami
My fiance and I live in a two bedroom, two bathroom apartment. We each get a bathroom, which is nice, but we don’t really have much use for a second bedroom so in the six months that we’ve lived here, it’s become something of a “junk room”. Anything we (I) don’t feel like dealing with at the moment, or anything we (I) don’t know what to do with, or all those many empty boxes that come from buying appliances, getting stuff in the mail, or people giving us things, we (I) have been putting in the extra room. In six short months, the room has become completely full of just… stuff.
Every weekend, or every time I have a spare evening, I think “I should really get in there and clean up a bit” and then I just… don’t. I’ve been dreading it for months, and the entire time, it just keeps getting worse. Well just the other day, I finally set aside two thirty minute chunks of my Sunday (with a break in the middle to run over to my parents’ house for a bit) and told myself I was going to use those two chunks of time to do as much organizing in the extra room as I could.
It’s okay if I don’t finish, I told myself, I just need to start. Thirty minutes, two times. I can do it. I didn’t want to do it, but I knew I needed to. As it turns out, it really wasn’t bad at all. Those sixty minutes were all it took. The room is clean and organized, and that thing that I’ve been dreading doing for months is now out of the way and off of my mind. If I had known it would be that easy, I would’ve done it months ago.
Have you ever noticed that lots of the things that you dread end up being like this? You’ll dread an important meeting at work, or a big presentation for school, or doing the dishes after dinner, and then when the time finally arrives to do the thing, you do the thing and everything is totally fine. I’d bet that you can count the number of times that the thing you dreaded was actually as terrible as you thought it would be on one hand. Maybe two.
Dreading all of this stuff takes up space in your mind that could be used for much more important things, or nothing at all. It causes so much unnecessary stress, and we all know that we need to be less stressed.
Dreading something means you’re living in the future. If there is nothing you can do at this exact second to make things better, there’s no point in thinking about it. If you’re dreading giving that big presentation because you haven’t started preparing at all, and currently you’re watching Netflix and inhaling ice cream, then yes, you should probably take a break from the Netflix (even if it’s only fifteen minutes, and you can keep eating the ice cream) to start preparing for the presentation. But if you’re driving to the grocery store to buy some much needed groceries, there’s nothing you can currently do to make that presentation any easier, so don’t bother dreading it.
All of this also applies to worrying. Worrying and dreading are very similar mindsets, and neither accomplishes anything. If there is nothing you can actively do at this second to make the thing you’re worrying about or dreading less bad when it gets here, acknowledge that you are worrying or dreading it, and let the thought go. Unless they prompt action, worry and dread do nothing but stress you out and making you less able to be happy in this moment and thus are emotions we do not need to dwell on. And I guarantee that 97% of the time, when that thing finally gets here, it won’t be nearly as bad as you thought it would be.
Now that I think we can agree that dread is pretty much worthless, how do we deal with it? How do you get yourself to stop dreading something?
Practice mindfulness. I recommend this all the time, but it’s because it works. If your aim is to stop dreading things unnecessarily, you’ll first have to notice that you are dreading something. You can’t stop doing something if you’re unaware that you’re doing it. Routinely practicing mindfulness and making it a regular habit in your life will allow you to notice when you’re dreading something so that you can then takes steps to stop.
Acknowledge that you’re worried about something coming in the future, and let the thought go. When it inevitably comes back, acknowledge it, and let it go again. Eventually, you’ll find yourself able to recognize the dread immediately and, without letting it stress you out, let it go.
Once you’re aware that you’re dreading something, if you can go do that thing right now, just go do it! Get it over with. It won’t be nearly as bad as you think. This is probably the best solution to dread. When you’ve finished the task, there’s nothing left to dread so by extension, you can’t dread that task anymore. Most of the time, it will turn out that the thing you were dreading really wasn’t nearly as bad as you thought it would be, and sometimes you’ll even enjoy it.
Personally, I know I sometimes dread going to the gym or getting out of bed, but once I do it, I find that working out makes me feel good, or I’m enjoying having started my day. Even if the thing you need to do isn’t actually a positive experience, things are rarely as bad as we hype them up to be.
If you get up and take care of the task, rather than dreading it, you can replace that feeling of dread with a feeling of accomplishment. Accomplishment is one of my favorite things. Get it over with and replace a terrible feeling with a great one. Why prolong your own suffering?
If your task isn’t something that you can just get up and do now, say it’s a meeting with a client at work, find something to distract yourself. The best distractions are going to be the things that you know you enjoy and can get lost in. Work on a hobby, listen to an audiobook, cook a meal that you love, take a nap, journal, go for a walk, pet your cat, talk to your best friend: basically, do anything that you know you will get wrapped up in.
I use this strategy all the time with negative and unproductive emotions. Any time I find myself worrying, dreading, dwelling, regretting, missing, or feeling angry, I try to find something I can do that will distract my mind. We all know that if someone tells us not to think about a purple elephant, we’re going to keep thinking about a purple elephant. However, if you dive headfirst into something else that will occupy your mind, it becomes much easier to forget about the elephant.
Postpone your dread. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we’re just going to dread stuff. Personally, I dread phone calls. I haaaate making phone calls, and they always make me anxious. Instead of letting a phone call that I know I have to make ruin my whole day, I’ll tell myself that I can worry about it at a specific time. For a call happening at 2, I’ll decide that I’m not allowed to dread it until 1:30. Then, whenever I catch myself dreading it earlier in the day, I can tell myself that it isn’t time for dread yet; it’ll have to wait. Then I let myself be anxious for a bit before the call, make the call, and it’s never as bad as I thought it would be. Basically, procrastinate dreading.
Write it out. Write down what you’re dreading. Write down each of the things that you think could go wrong or will be terrible about this thing you need to do. Then, go through the list and assess whether each of these things is even possible, and if it is, is it even remotely likely. Will that person actually be mad at you for saying what you need to say? Or is it much more likely that they’ll be glad you were honest with them?
Often, by getting it out of our heads and on to paper, we realize that realistically, the thing we’re dreading won’t be that bad. When we’re forced to actually face our dread, it becomes clear that we’re making things out to be significantly worse than they will actually be. Our fears are typically unfounded and everything will probably be fine. If you find yourself dreading it again, revisit this list of reasons why it won’t actually be that bad.
Assess if the thing that could potentially go wrong will matter in five years. Will it matter in one year? Will it matter in one month? For most things, probably not. You’re making your present life much more stressful and unpleasant by dreading something, and this thing almost definitely will not make the slightest difference to you in a week or two. Most of the time, it won’t even matter tomorrow. Stepping back from the situation for a moment will help us to realize how trivially tiny most things actually are. When we know how little they’ll matter in the long run, it’s much easier to let it go and stop worrying about it.
Lastly, decide if you actually need to do that thing you're dreading. Do you find that you constantly dread hanging out with a specific person? Or maybe you always dread grocery shopping, or having to figure out what to wear every day. You don't have to hang out with anyone. There are services that will do your shopping for you and deliver it to your home. You could create a personal uniform and wear the same outfit every day. If there's something in your life that you dread, determine if you actually need to do that thing, or if you just feel obligated to for no reason. If you don't have to do it, don't.
In order to enjoy life each day, it’s necessary to minimize unneeded negative emotions. There will always be things in our lives that we don’t enjoy or don't want to do, but often those things bring us the most benefit. We shouldn’t aim to remove everything painful and embark on the pursuit of constant pleasure, as pleasure doesn’t bring happiness and often leads to terrible situations. However, there’s no need to bring about suffering through our own thoughts and actions. Sitting around and dreading something won’t make that thing any easier when it comes, it will just make this moment worse. We must learn to avoid dread in order to live our best lives every day.