One of my friends dumped the lead singer of a local indie rock band because he cared too much. Sometimes he kept her up half the night, thinking out loud about bad reviews.
He pointed at words. “What do you think he meant by that?”
She’d say, “I don’t know, baby.”
Later that year, his band broke up with him too.
Finding something important and meaningful in your life is perhaps the most productive use of your time and energy.
— Mark Manson
We think caring is a good thing. But then we find out that caring has a point of diminishing return. You can ruin anything by caring too much. Love. Careers. Your health. You name it.
You can get addicted
Caring is a potent drug. You only need a tiny dose to start going after the things you want in life. When those things don’t go according to plan, another shot of caring won’t help.
You can overdose on caring.
Someone strung out on caring isn’t thinking straight. You know what this looks like. We’ve all seen someone obsessed over some part of their life and gone, “Why do they care so much?”
This is how someone winds up overwriting their screenplay. It’s how we bungle our first date, say something dumb during a job interview, or blow up at someone over a little schedule hiccup.
They need a detox.
The big secret
You have to care just enough about the right things, and dump what doesn’t matter. Sometimes, you even have to pretend you don’t care as much as you actually do. It’s a tough trick to pull off.
The things you care about the most, those are the ones you have to be careful about overdosing on.
You have to trick yourself into caring less.
How to care less
It’s not easy to care less about what matters most to you. But it’s essential, and there’s a few strategies.
- Stop trying to predict outcomes
- Take breaks
- Assume a level of disappointment
- Find hobbies and distractions
These apply to anything in your life — including people.
Think about how you act in situations where you don’t care that much about what happens. You relax. You pay attention. You shift your focus. You don’t get lost inside your head. You don’t overreact. You’re reasonable, level-headed, and pragmatic. That’s why we always seem to win when the stakes seem so low, and fail when they’re so high.
We forget that we’re the ones who make the stakes.
You need a shot of pessimism
When you overdose on caring, what you need is a dose of pessimism. That’s the natural antidote. Hear me out.
The best thing some of us ever did was inject a little pessimism into our lives. We kicked our superlatives to the curb. We stopped trying to be amazing, and focused on being “good enough.”
We stopped getting so attached to our dreams. We allowed our goals and desires to change. We stopped making such a big deal out of everything, including our victories.
We brought a cynical co-host onto the talk show of our minds, to balance out the sunny optimist. We started winning at life, but we didn’t pat ourselves on the back. Instead we just shrugged and smirked.
It was life-changing magic.
Strategic caring is also about zooming out
They say, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” But that’s the problem. In a given moment, we think small stuff is big stuff.
We practice displaced caring all the time.
The barista spells your name wrong. The food takes too long to come out, or someone cuts you in line at the supermarket. Your boss sends you annoying emails or doesn’t thank you for finishing big projects. Your partner leaves a dirty bowl in the sink again, or the toilet seat up. Your brain tells you that this little thing somehow reflects a larger, systemic problem in your world. You decide you’re “not going to take it anymore.”
This is when your life depends on asking, “So what?”
Nobody ever changed their lives by turning some minor irritation into a war zone. You might recognize a bigger problem with hooks in some minor detail. But that’s a sign to zoom out.
A brief list of things you should care less about
Here are some things you probably spend too much time worrying about, because we all do:
- What someone thinks about you
- How much you despise your boss
- Bad drivers
- Someone else ruining their life
- What your ex is up to
- That embarrassing moment
- How you look in your rear view mirror
- Something you have to do, but don’t want to
You get the idea. Some of these things matter a little, and some of them don’t matter at all. They’re exactly the kind of problems that keep us up at night, because we have a minimum amount of control over them. And our brains have a tough time letting go of agency.
Make your own list
I’m not a huge fan of little exercises, but this one can help. If you’re worked up, sit down and write out what’s bothering you. Let that list get as long as you need. Then for each thing, write out what you can actually do about it. For example, if you really can’t get along with your boss, and you’ve tried everything, it’s time to start looking for a new job.
That’s a much more productive thing to focus on. It’s hard and scary. Maybe that’s why you prefer to sit around and care.
Understand where you fit
A lot of the problem with over-caring comes from an inflated sense of self-importance. We think our caring is the answer.
Heads up, you caring helps — but only to the extent you act on it. Tweeting about a social cause is a nice start. But that won’t make the world a better place. What will? Here’s another short list:
- Informing yourself
This is all you can and should do. It’s time-consuming. It’s inconvenient. It means giving up a Saturday afternoon to help build a house, or cook food for the homeless. A lot of the time, it’s kind of boring.
But this is how you’ll change the world. You can sit around and care your ass off. It’s a fun way to accomplish nothing.
The problem with care bares
Growing up, cartoons taught us that caring was enough. If you stared at a problem, magic rainbows would blast out of your chest to turn assholes into human beings and make everything sparkly.
Bears in the real world don’t care about your opinions, or how hard your day was. They think you’re food.
So care — but do it the smart way. Don’t overdose.