Surprise, surprise!

I was recently reading an article about Tania Luna, who bills herself as a Surprisologist. She is a firm believer in the value of adding an element of surprise to life, and has built a company arranging mystery outings and events for people. By taking into account their personal likes/dislikes and comfort levels, she organizes unique experiences that remain a surprise to the participants.

The article got me thinking about the genesis of my own love/hate relationship with surprises.

The hate came first. When my family arrived in Vancouver when I was 7, we spent a couple of months living at my aunt and uncle’s house. Their teenaged son (no doubt protesting the addition of 5 extra people in his space) delighted in “surprising” my siblings and I by jumping out from behind furniture, or otherwise appearing in startling ways from unexpected places.

Congruent with their temperaments, my brother and sister responded to these surprises by screaming and then dissolving into laughter. In keeping with my own, I responded by developing a nervous tic and insisting on sleeping with my mom and dad.

To highlight the benefits of surprise, Luna says: “We feel most comfortable when things are certain, but we feel most alive when they’re not.”

There is no doubt I felt alive every time my cousin jumped up and yelled “Boo!,” and making Luna’s point that surprise enhances our ability to remember an event, this is the only thing I remember about our time living there. Luna emphasizes the staying power of memories of positive surprises, but the same tenacity holds true of negative surprises, which can throw us into a state of shock and harden a memory into a trauma.

For those who’ve been traumatized and those with more anxious temperaments, surprise is synonymous with threat; what we don’t know, didn’t anticipate, or can’t control feels menacing and dangerous and is to be avoided at all costs, even if one of those costs equals feeling less alive.

In her business, Luna strikes a balance between surprise and control by gathering information about her clients, ensuring that the adventures she crafts will be a stimulating stretch of their comfort zone without being so uncomfortable that “I never want to do that again” is the only take-away.

Since most of us don’t have access to a professional surpriser it falls on us to seek our own balance, pushing ourselves to stretch beyond the tried and true while also ensuring that the experience is enlivening rather than overwhelmingly noxious.

I remember a client who a few years ago decided to try and overcome the driving anxiety she felt as a result of an accident by driving across two provinces, in the dead of winter, with her mother in the car. She (and her relationship) survived the trip, but it was a long time before she once again had the courage to get behind the wheel.

Conversely, I’ve had clients say that they avoided therapy for years because the uncertainty of what they would talk about, how the therapist would respond, and what the experience might reveal was too much to confront.

Today, I love the surprise of encountering and getting to know a new client, or seeing where today’s conversation will take us with an ‘old’ client. And since none of those clients greet me by jumping out from behind the water cooler, I haven’t felt the need to bunk with my parents in years!

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.

What’s New this New Year?

I love this time of year, especially the ritual of ushering in a New Year. With its promise that we can wipe the old slate clean, and write a better story on a new, refreshingly (as yet) unsullied one, what’s not to love!

What will your ‘better’ story be this year?

At a meditation a few years ago the teacher spoke of how “sometimes we are eyes without feet, sometimes we are feet without eyes.” We can have a clear and defined vision of what we want but take no steps to get there, or we can take a lot of steps in various directions – be in constant motion in fact – without any sense of where exactly it is we’re going.

The tricky part is connecting eyes and feet, not only identifying what we want, but also taking meaningful and sustained action to get there.

For many of the clients I work with, the meaningful action required paradoxically has less to do with motion and more to do with finding a willingness to be still.

When anxiety is the issue, motion is generally not a problem. We go to great lengths to escape anxiety, or at least attempt to keep it at bay. We may turn down invitations to socialize, engage in rituals that give us a sense of control in an uncontrollable world, or opt to avoid any people, places and things that make us feel uneasy. All of these ‘feet’ align with the ‘eyes’ of easing our discomfort, but if our vision is actually to have a bigger, more engaged, and more engaging life these footsteps will not get us there.

The step we need to take to move in that direction is to increase our capacity to sit with and bear the feeling of anxiety that comes when we are stretching our comfort zone, testing our limits and beliefs. Seeing that the experience of anxiety, while undeniably uncomfortable is not intolerable, is a key step to breaking the hold it has on our lives (and our feet).

Worrying Well

There is no doubt we’re living in worrisome times, and little doubt that past generations would have said the same of their times. If worry is ever-present, learning how to worry well (or at least better) seems a useful skill to master.

How do you worry? Are you someone who replays past conversations or events over and over again, going through in detail what you said/should have said, did/should have done? Or is your worry more focused on the future, anticipating how something will unfold, what you’ll say next time your mother gives you that look, or you see that cute guy or girl?

Worry is essentially our brain’s tendency to rehash and rehearse – it replays the past hoping we will learn from our mistakes and therefore not repeat them, or anticipates the future, giving us a chance to run our lines and prepare our scripts.

But while these are helpful and necessary processes, worry can also become chronic. It can keep us so caught up in rehashing the past or rehearsing the future that we fail to be present to the present.

If you find that worry sometimes has its way with you, here are a couple of things to try:

  • Take a worry inventory: using post-in notes or some scrap paper, take a walk through your mind and identify the things that are currently asking for your worried attention. As you find these – for example, “there’s the thing with my sister, remembering to book my flight for next month, talking to my boss about the project”… – write each one on a separate piece of paper. If there are any items that you need to deal with right away, pull them aside and organize them in the order you will address them. If none of them are pressing right at this minute (Hint: if it’s 2:00am and “get out of my burning home” is not one of the items, NONE of them are pressing right at this minute!), put them in a box or jar and lay them aside until you are able and willing to address them. You will likely find that just the act of acknowledging the things that are preoccupying you, and giving yourself the message that you WILL deal with them is itself freeing.
  • Try the ‘worry well but only once’ technique proposed by Margaret Wehrenberg. Set aside a time in your schedule (20-30 minutes) and make that your worry time. Use that time to actively worry – rehash and rehearse to your heart’s (and mind’s) content, make the lists you need to make, plan the strategies you need to plan, review the foibles, humiliations and disappointments you need to review… Then when your time is up, put worry away. If it calls your name later on, remind yourself that you already worried today and you’re going to worry again tomorrow, so save it for your worry time. You may find that condensing worry into an acute 20-30 minute time slot is much preferable to the 24/7 chronic low-grade variety of worrying.