Thursday, January 16, 2014

Worries and Fetishes

Worries are like fetishes. The ones that do it for me really do it. They work every time. They have distinctive language and imagery that roll through my brain on a predictable and effective path, making me weak in the knees, getting me wound up. I can recognize the people who share them because they use certain key words or phrases. We can spot each other across a crowded room. It takes only a shiver at the right moment or a certain knowing look in the eye.

The ones that aren't really for me, on the other hand, seem odd and mystifying. I can buy that they keep other people up at night, but they leave me cold. When someone else tries to explain why they're so compelling, I listen with fascination and a raised eyebrow. "Oh?" My voice lifts. I am trying to play it cool, but my skepticism sneaks in. "That really hits you? I see."

I have major and minor fetishes, and I have major and minor worries. The minor ones can still get me rolling—for example, I can certainly work myself up worrying about money if I put a little back into it—but they're not the things that spring constantly to mind.

For me, the major, gold-standard worry is about what other people are going to think of me. At this point, any worry that takes me down this track leads to a geological formation of well-connected thoughts and associations that are worn smooth as a river rock from constant handling. The things that come up along these lines seem self-referential, self-evident, and inescapable.

An ordinary worry can be cooled with a little rational thinking:

Worry: "What if I don't have the right paperwork when I get to the DMV?"

Response: "Oh, no problem. I'll just go home, get it, and come back later."

The major worry only feeds on itself and grows:

Worry: "What if the woman behind the counter at the DMV thinks I'm stupid when I don't have my paperwork?"

Response: "It doesn't matter if she thinks so. I'll just go home and get it."

New Worry: "Then when I come back, I'll stammer because I'm nervous and she'll think I'm even stupider."

Response: (thrilling shiver) "It'll be over quickly. It doesn't matter."

New Worry: "Right, but she's not the only person I'll have to talk to. I'll have to get a number and sit and wait. I'll be sitting next to someone in the waiting room. They'll smell that I'm sweating or see my hands shaking and think I'm weird."

Response: (more shivering, sense of helplessness) "I'll try to smile."

And so on.

If someone asks me, "So what? So what if she thinks you're stupid or someone else thinks you're weird?" my response is a blank stare. A person who can't understand the horror of that just doesn't get what this worry is about.

Perhaps because I'm connecting worries to fetishes, when I wrote that imaginary thing about the DMV, I turned myself on. But that's another way that worries are like fetishes, I think. Both a worry and a fetish are about a certain sort of obsessive attention. And I happen to have major fetishes that have to do with feeling helpless and embarrassed. Sometimes, my obsessive attention turns erotic, and sometimes it paralyzes me with worry. (And in a made-up scenario like the one above, it's more likely to head toward the erotic).

I don't think there's a one-to-one connection, though. I'm very into feet, for example, but I don't see an easy way to connect that fetish to a major worry of mine.

I do think both worries and fetishes have a sort of circularity, a buildup of personal history that makes each new event or thought take on greater significance than it would to a person who isn't touched by that particular thing.

They also have to come at the right angle to strike. I love spanking stories, for example, but I can tell that people write and read them with an eye toward different key phrases. I've just read Greta Christina's "Bending: Dirty Kinky Stories About Pain, Power, Religion, Unicorns, & More" (thanks for the recommendation, Lisabet!), and in every single one of the spanking stories in that collection, Christina mentions pulling the skirt up and the panties down. This is clearly a very important part of the imagery for her, but not so important for me (I don't mind it, it just doesn't give me that special thrill). On the other hand, when she mentions crying, I'm there. The same scene might stand or fall for me on whether or not there's crying.

Similarly, I'm not particularly inclined to worry about my health. I don't think much about medical records or whether or not I'll catch whatever strain of flu is going around. I don't care about touching dirty subway poles or being sneezed on or whatnot. On the other hand, if I'm sick and I start to worry that people will think I'm dirty or disgusting—bang! Now it's about my gold-standard worry, and the cycle can engage.

I worry a lot, and it causes me a fair bit of misery, so I had mixed feelings about this topic. I've been interested to read other people's thoughts on this, but I was reluctant to wallow in the minutiae of my own geological formations, so to speak. But now for my last comparison of worries to fetishes: as with fetishes, it has helped me to accept my worries and give them a bit of their own time and space. I can indulge them at certain times, but also keep just enough distance and sense of humor about them. And that makes them much more okay for me than when I'm trying to fight them all the time.


  1. What an amazing insight, Annabeth. I think you're spot on. The worries that really get to us are the ones to which we devote emotional energy - exactly like the sexual scenarios that never, ever fail to rev our motors.

    I do find it astonishing that someone with your intellect and eloquence would worry about seeming stupid. However, as you point out, the core worries, the ones that never fail, are not even remotely rational.

  2. Thank you! And thank you for the kind words about my intellect and eloquence. I'm sure it isn't rational to worry about seeming stupid, and has a lot to do with that geological formation thing I was talking about.

    I think the key for this one is that I feel more comfortable and confident when I can take my time. Writing is nice for me because I can read things over and check them before letting someone else see what I've said. Also, I prefer to think slowly, carefully, and alone or with a trusted friend. Speaking out loud, in the moment, I feel on the spot and frightened of what will slip out of my mouth (or whether I'll freeze up and be unable to get out a coherent thought). Many times, I find myself wishing I could have written something out or had time to step away (and I actually do often step out of stores, for example, then walk back in once I've caught up with myself).

  3. "At this point, any worry that takes me down this track leads to a geological formation of well-connected thoughts and associations that are worn smooth as a river rock from constant handling."
    Excellent analogy and imagery! Indeed the insecurities that terrorize us the most are those with the least amount of truth to other people. If we could step out of ourselves and analyze them, we might agree. But they were planted there so long ago we don't remember them not being a part of us. And as you so eloquently say, they are so intrinsically a part of us that they help define us to ourselves.

    Me? I'm terrified at not being "good enough". Not good enough for my parents to be proud,and since they're both gone now, there's no way to redeem myself with them anymore so that worry rests there, dormant, until the middle of the night. Not good enough for my husband who works so hard, yet gets only the paltry contribution of a part-time salary from me because (here the original worry blends in), I got an English degree instead of something my parents told me would be more worth their money. Not good enough for my kids...etc. In fact, when my brother's wife had to go visit her dying mother and confided that they'd never been close so she didn't know what to say to the woman who had raised her, I told her to tell her mother that she had been a "good enough" mom. If my kids can tell me that, then my life hasn't been the waste that I see it as, in the middle of the night.

  4. Brilliant post! My most paralyzing worries seem always to involve phoning utilities to negotiate down prices. And not because I'm a bad negotiator... I'm actually pretty good at it. I guess I could just pay the crazy amounts they charge for services, but then I feel taken advantage of and that's no good.

    I miss the days when I was a proud bitch. I realize now how emotionally disconnected I was back then, but it was easier to get thinks done.

  5. How brilliant to parallel worry and fetish. Those subtle differences in our knee-jerk kickers.

    One thing to keep in mind is while you're worrying if you look silly, everybody else is too busy worrying how they themselves are coming off.

    But we're all different, and your comment about being prepared for a situation is the opposite of my m.o. I'd just as soon run the extemporaneous route, adjusting to a situation as I go. I've fucked up royally public speaking, trying to work from an outline or speech. Bodes bad for readings. :>)

  6. Jeremy -- Thank you! :)

    Fiona -- Glad you appreciate the analogy! That degree thing torments me, too. I'm sorry to hear that one gets you.

    Giselle -- :) One of my favorite rants at home is about how I wish I could just decide to be a bitch.

    Daddy X -- That really illustrates how different things work for different people, and it's a good point. It's funny how what's comforting to one person will totally screw another person up.

  7. You give fascinating insights, beautifully written, into points of view that I recognize but don't entirely comprehend.

    I know people who find humiliation arousing, and I know people who like to provide that service for them. I don't like to feel humiliated, but I don't much care if it's only in front of people whose opinion doesn't matter to me. I like approval, too, but I figured early on (even before high school) that I couldn't fit into the approved categories of the times, so I took a sort of pride in being weird. The older I get, though, the harder it is to appear weird, or anything other than the grandmother that I am. On the other hand, I care less about what other people think.

  8. Annabeth, that is very insightful. I like to think my worries are totally rational, and that other people's aren't. (I agree with everyone here who says you have no logical reason to worry about seeming stupid.) However, I suspect mine are no more rational than anyone else's. I have noticed that reassurances don't help much.


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