My kids have one week of school left before summer vacation. We were driving around the other day, and it just so happened to be one of those days where they were being awesomely annoying - my oldest was asking a million questions, my youngest was wanting me to reach for the same car he had dropped 27 times already, plus they both were actively seeking out ways to rile up the other one. This is all happening while I’m driving, and I think I’ve mentioned before somewhere that we are usually late to most things (because two kids), so that puts my stress at an elevated level to begin with. Pair that with hearing my name in repeated in high-pitched whiny voices over and over again...well I was a ball of anxiety. My default mode when i feel anxious, is to start thinking about all of the other things that could ALSO contribute to my stress and anxiety, so I start worrying about summer vacation - what am I going to do with these two all day? - the fact that we are late, all of the work I need to do today, and on and on. Then I start feeling out of control of my life and here comes a snowball of stress, rolling down the hill and getting bigger and bigger.
It’s taken me a long time to be aware of habits like this and recognize what I’m doing, and lately I am just turning the corner of not only possessing that awareness but also trying to stop this natural tendency from happening. Our brains are all wired to default to the “easiest” choice - that way it doesn’t have to think too much - and for most of us, we don’t even realize that our coping strategies in certain situations are the result of years and years of ingrained patterns in ourselves; your emotions and behavior throughout your entire life lay down the pathways in your brain to finish the “If (this) happens then I do (this)” loop.
Stopping habits that you’ve been building up for a lifetime is a big task. It is a difficult thing to examine yourself and your natural reactions to things, let alone try to get to the root of why you act the way you do when life gets tough. I think for me, it comes down to a matter of control. I am someone who likes routine, who needs my own quiet time during the day, who likes to do what I want when I want it. Anyone with young kids knows, your life is not your own for what feels like a long time. I am responsible for two tiny humans who are growing and developing their own little stubborn and strong-willed personalities. They don’t always listen to me. I don’t get to do everything that I want to do each day. Routine? Ha, that is not an easy thing in our house! Every day feels like one big obstacle course, and some days I make it to the end feeling like a stressed out maniac.
I can sum it up like this - I feel like I am not in control of my own life most of the time, therefore I try to hang on to any small level of control that I can. The reason this ties into summer vacation with my kids is, I always find myself planning out our schedule days and weeks in advance. It helps me feel some amount of control. As I was sitting there trying to come up with ways to fill those extra 4-5 hours in the day with my boys, I had that lightbulb moment, and I realized EXACTLY what I was doing. I thought to myself “This default mode that you’ve switched on is actually making you more stressed out” and immediately worked on turning my thoughts to something else. I was pretty proud of myself!
Now, let’s talk about you. Can you relate? I will paint two different scenarios - that don’t involve kids - that I think we’ve all been in at some point to illustrate my point.
Example 1 is almost any athletic competition: the Open, your rec league soccer team, professional football, you name it. You prepare for months leading into the Open, and you feel very confident with your progress. You’re stronger, faster, and fitter than last year and are ready to crush everything at the start of week one. Fast forward five weeks later, and you are disappointed because you didn’t finish as high on the leaderboard as you expected. You brush away months and months of work based on a number that is ultimately out of your control. Sure, you most definitely have ownership over your performance in any given workout, but as for how that performance compares to everyone else...well, that is something out of your hands.
Example 2 is your nutrition. Your job is stressful, you’ve been feeling lonely or isolated lately, you feel aches and pains more regularly than a few months ago, so you think you just need to tighten things up with your diet to “get back on track” because that is something you can control. We, as a society, rely on food to solve a lot of our problems. It’s easy to look at something like this on the surface without digging deeper into the why. Or actually, the what. What are you attempting to replace with that food behavior? What feels missing? This one is a bit more uncomfortable than the first example, so I’m going to leave that question hanging there for you to inspect yourself. When you’re ready.
Both examples illustrate how the illusion of control can really mess with our self-worth and our behaviors. In the first example, you need to understand how much control you really have in any given situation; I think you’ll find it’s a lot less than you’d expect. Understanding that concept is the first step in reframing how you think about your performance. In the second example, you have to realize your behavior is driven by something far different than what appears on the surface. Wanting control is masking something else. Our perception of control over any given situation really clouds our understanding of what is actually going on and ultimately results in unnecessary stress. I think we can all agree on wanting to reduce stress in our lives, especially avoidable stress we create for ourselves. The question is how to go about changing a habit so routine we don’t even realize our behavior is contributing to our lives in a negative way?
Recognizing the behavior is a really difficult process which causes you to do a lot of self-reflection and examination, and it’s not something comfortable for a lot of people. It’s a very important first step, so be proud of the fact that you made it to this point. What to do about it is not really a straightforward answer - I think it depends on what you want the outcome to be. For me, when I am feeling overwhelmed and I have a million things to do and I feel the urge to start planning out my day to the exact minute...I play with my kids - run around the house, draw on the sidewalk with chalk, go to a park - basically anything they want to do. It takes my mind off things and more importantly, it forces me to release my white knuckle grip on controlling every last detail of my life. My desired outcome is to be “less tense” and less anxious about things that haven’t even happened yet, so when facing a stressful situation, I (try to!) shut off the responsibilities side of my brain and let my carefree side peek out every now and then. I don’t always catch myself in time, and sometimes I end up washing dishes and folding laundry like a maniac before I realize what I’m doing. It’s a constant work in progress!
I think a very simple place to start is realizing there are basically two things in life you can actually control: your actions and how you react to everyone else’s actions. You have a choice to be annoyed when you’re stuck in traffic, or you can realize you are stuck through no fault of your own. You have a choice to be disappointed in your placement in the Open, or you can realize you have no control over the workout selection and what the rest of your age group did to prepare. You can tighten up your diet in the hopes it “fixes” your problems, or you can allow yourself to release the pressure and get to the root of your loneliness or boredom. Letting go of the notion of control is a really freeing concept once you can wrap your head around it. Changing this way of thinking isn’t a quick process. You have to undo some habits that are so routine you don’t even really think about doing them. Start with a small first step: whatever your initial reaction is to some stressful situation in your life - do the opposite. Practice it over and over until your usual habits aren’t habits anymore. If you remember that you are in charge of your behavior and your reaction to whatever life throws at you - and then DECIDE to have a positive reaction - I think you will find a lot of the little stresses in your life disappear. And that is something to look forward to.