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!