Getting a grip

A couple of months ago I was sitting in the movie theatre with my 15 year-old daughter, weeping my way through Still Alice, the movie she’d urged me to see with her.

Unlike my daughter, I hadn’t read the novel the movie is based on but I knew enough of the plot – a woman’s descent into early-onset Alzheimer’s – to come with tissues prepared.

I was right to be prepared, it’s a gut-wrenching tale. Much of the movie centres on Alice’s relationship with her family (and especially her youngest daughter), as they all try to come to terms with her aggressive illness.

I sat sniffling in the dark, completely caught up in the story unfolding on the screen. I wasn’t just watching Julianne Moore playing a character from a novel, I was imagining myself learning that Alzheimer’s would make me lose myself a little at a time (and remembering that time I put the mail in the freezer, wondering if that’s a sign!)

I didn’t just see the complex mother and daughter relationship depicted on the screen, I connected to my own relationship with my daughter, how much she means to me and how quickly the years pass…

Said daughter, having endured enough vicarious embarrassment, broke into my reverie by leaning over and whispering, “Get a hold of yourself!”

Perhaps not the most empathic intervention one could offer, but it did shake me out of my painful pondering.

Although I try to put it more gently, I realize it’s the same advice I often give to clients when they’re caught up in anxious ruminating: “Get a hold of yourself, stay present with what’s happening right here right now, notice the stories playing out in your mind, and also notice that they are just that – stories.”

That isn’t to say that sad and terrible things haven’t happened or won’t happen, it’s just to acknowledge that our memory of something tragic or our projection of something feared is different from our lived experience in this moment.

Our minds are endlessly creative and uniquely skilled at spinning tales that will entertain, enliven, or terrify us. Anxious minds usually opt for terrifying. To paraphrase a famous quote by Mark Twain, some of the worst things that ever happened to us never happened to us.

If we can get emotionally caught up in a tale developing in front of us in a darkened movie theatre when we know it is all make-believe, it’s no surprise that the tale is that much stickier when it’s playing in an endless loop in our own heads, and stars us and the things we care most about and are most afraid of losing.

We might choose to distract ourselves from the stories, or land on rituals or superstitions that give us the illusion of control (knock on wood).

We can also choose to practice mindfulness. To get a hold of ourselves – sometimes literally – bring awareness to what is happening right here right now, to notice the movie playing and also notice that in this moment we are in the theatre seat, not in the scene on the screen.

Getting To Know You…

How do you make The Amazing Race even more amazing? If you’re after my own reality-TV loving heart, you incorporate elements of one of my other guilty viewing pleasures, The Bachelor.

And that’s exactly what the powers that be have done in this latest (26th!) running of the race. The race has always featured teams composed of 2 people who have some sort of relationship (parent-child, siblings, best friends, dating or married, etc.) but for this edition the teams consist of 6 established dating couples and 5 couples the producers have matched up.

The match-made couples meet each other for the first time at the beginning of the “race around the world” with the expectation that they will: get to know each other, explore the possibility of a romantic match, and work as teammates to complete what are often strange, arduous and stressful tasks. Did I mention they do all this while racing to various locations around the world, dealing with jet lag, the pressure of being under the watch of the ever-present cameras, and the stress of competing against the other teams for a million dollar prize? If they could work in abandoning the couples on a remote island and letting them fend for themselves it would be the perfect TV show!

I’ve only had a chance to see the first episode so far, but the thing that stuck out for me was the performance of the new vs. established couples. Since there is a race in the Amazing Race, the object is to get to the end of each leg of the race as soon as possible, with a prize waiting for the team that gets there first and the threat of elimination for the team that gets there last.

Out of the 11 teams, the 5 newly formed couples finished the first leg in the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, 6th and 8th spots. That’s a pretty impressive showing considering the things that one assumes would lead to better teamwork – mutual trust, established patterns of communication, knowing each other’s strengths and weaknesses – would seem to give the advantage to the pre-existing couples.

Except the pre-existing couples aren’t used to racing together, they’re used to negotiating a relationship together (perhaps its own kind of race). Research shows that the longer we’re with our partner, the more confident we become in the belief that we fully know our partner. We don’t become any more accurate in predicting our partner’s thoughts and feelings (if anything, people become less accurate), but our sense of surety in our own accuracy solidifies over time.

Why would that be? When we’re first getting to know someone, we are both taken with and unsettled by their ‘new’ness. We are curious to find out all we can about them, but also seek to file them away in our mental database, so we can feel confident we know what kind of person they are. Once we decide we’ve ‘solved’ them, we become less curious and less observant; confirmation bias starts to kick in and we see the aspects of their behaviour that confirm our beliefs, while ignoring anything that would seem to contradict them.

I feel that I can see that process starting to happen with the new couples. Immediately upon meeting each other, they start to use labels – “cute” “built” “friendly” – that are descriptive of overt characteristics or behaviour, but soon also start using labels (like “sporty” “bubbly” “smart” “princess”), that combine aspects of current behaviour with assumptions about character and predictions about potential future behaviour.

It will be interesting to see how it all unfolds, and how the match-made couples’ first impressions morph into more solidified beliefs about who their partner is. My guess is that their second impressions may not be any more accurate than their first, but they will be a lot harder to shake.