My car—a beige 2007 Prius I bought several years ago, and which I intend to keep driving until it’s dead (over 150,000 miles and still ticking along)—doesn’t cause me trouble most of the time.

The other day, though, the little check engine light came on—the steady, amber-colored one, not the red, flashing one, thankfully—so I took it in to have the error code pulled and was told that I could be looking at some decent-sized repairs, that if not made, would basically lead to the engine exploding…or it could be nothing.

It’s a code that pops up sometimes when grit gets into the wrong place, essentially, and if it goes away on its own you’re generally good, but if not, things could go sideways in the near-future.

The light was gone when I started my car the following day, but I’ve been anticipating its return ever since.

It’s been several weeks, now, but I still catch my attention drifting to my dashboard, watching for that little icon: a symbol that, if it returns, would represent a significant headache and a substantial mechanic bill.

This heightened level of vigilance—what in some contexts might be called hyper-vigilance—serves no purpose whatsoever.

If that little check engine light returns, I’ll see it, I’ll take my car to the mechanic to be fixed, and I’ll grit my teeth and pay the bill.

It would suck if that happens, but I’ve done what I can do at this point and any additional fixation on the icon’s return represents time I’ll never get back and divided attention, with no upside.

There’s zero value in agonized, anxious anticipation.

This is similar in some ways to something I experienced near the beginning of the pandemic, when I started to suffer some (now mostly handled) health issues that manifested as unfamiliar pain, discomfort, heart behavior, and difficulty sleeping.

My attention toward these irregularities triggered and sustained a self-reinforcing cycle of anxiety and stress that—though catalyzed by legitimately strange health things—ultimately amplified the very issues I was struggling with.

My hyper-vigilant interoception—paying constant, too-focused attention on my body’s sensations and rhythms—bore many of the same hallmarks as my reflexive, too-frequent glances at the car’s dashboard and did me just as a little good (in both cases arguably leading to worse outcomes, not better ones; sunk costs all around).

There are cases when purposeful self-awareness in the shape of mindfulness or meditation makes a lot of sense and can serve us rather than worsening a negative psychological spiral (or nonsensical, minor bad habit).

I would argue that it’s generally a positive thing to have at least a basic understanding of our own bodies and minds and preferences and habits, to notice adjustments to our relevant defaults, and to take note when we respond to things in positive or sub-optimal ways, whether that means flagging and figuring out why we got annoyed at something someone did, or privately acknowledging when something makes us feel elated, inspired, motivated, or fulfilled.

These are useful data points, and can help us make better decisions or notice when something’s legitimately not right.

Too much focus, or a fixation on perfection or purity, however, can distort healthful habits into something else entirely, and it’s possible to track the wrong things, the right things in the wrong way, or to set standards or goals that don’t line up with reality or our actual (rather than idealized or culturally inherited) goals.

I’ve historically been able to elbow myself away from the negative permutations of this type of vigilance (eventually, at least) by doing a bit of research, figuring out some sensical narratives about what seems to be happening, and then catching myself any time I drift into the non-ideal, habituated activity, including a gentle reminder that I’ve done what I can, I know what I’ll do if X happens, and there’s nothing more I can do at the moment: every second I spend anticipating further negative outcomes is time I’ll never get back.

It’s still a conscious process every time, but thankfully it’s a process I recognize, now, and from which I know I can eventually (with a little effort) extract myself.

If you found value in this essay, consider buying me a coffee :)

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