Where will all the ribbons go?

I started my counselling sessions last Monday with an in-person appointment that marked the first of six sessions, the rest of which will consist of five weekly 40-minute phone calls where I can touch base with the counselor and hopefully develop some new strategies for coping with my stress and depression.

My ‘homework’ was to look at some ‘problem statements’ that help me identify difficult situations, emotions, thoughts and behaviours that combine in ways that trigger or add to my feelings of anxiety, depression and general shittiness. At the bottom of my worksheet is a blank space to write my goals.

After a hard but helpful conversation with Jake where he offered some useful insight into my behaviour that I can’t always see for myself, I wasn’t any closer to filling out the problem statements specifically, but I did have a goal: to let go of my desire to control more than I should.

The Monica inside me

There’s a scene in Friends that perfectly captures how I often respond to unexpected situations. When Monica and Chandler are talking about when the right time is to have a baby, they realise there may never be a perfect time and that, no matter when they have a baby, it will be scary and full of things they can’t control. In the midst of this, Monica has the following realisation:

where will all the ribbons go

Much like Monica, I’ve dreamed of having children for a long time. When the right (read: the least scary) time comes for me to have kids, I don’t want to be like the Monica in this scene, frantically cleaning and tidying up every bit of mess around me and the baby.

I realise that being a new parent inevitably means periods of time where I will in fact be too tired to give a damn about how messy anything is, or how long it’s been since I showered, went grocery shopping, swept the floor….but I also hope that, in the days where I’m not too tired to care, I can still let it all go. I want to enjoy being a mom and just feel a normal (rather than Monica-esque) level of self-consciousness about the state I’m in.

The baby is just a metaphor for any and all of life’s unexpected challenges, of course, and I can’t hope to control them all. As tempting as it is to just wait until motherhood forces me to let go of my unrealistic expectations around control, I really want to let go of my desire for control long before I have children. I want it for myself, and for those who are close to me – especially Jake, who is amazingly easy-going and accommodating of my ‘Monica moments’.

Jake’s approach to my…let’s call them quirks…has always been this: if, from a purely objective point of view, my way of doing something is better, he’ll happily accommodate it or adapt to my way of doing something. (For the record, I’d also be happy to do the same when if the situation were reversed.)

However, as lovely as this approach is (as well as rational, which I find very appealing), it also has the effect of enabling – if not outright validating – my controlling habits, by deeming them to be the best way to do something. This hasn’t helped me let go of the things I like to control, it’s just eliminated the conflict these situations can cause.

Perhaps I need to take some affirmative action, purposefully doing things in a way that is contrary to my established methods, or asking Jake to do more / taking him up on more of his offers to cook, clean, etc. in order to put myself in the uncomfortable position of wanting to ‘fix’ things that honestly don’t need fixing….and then deciding to let it go.

There’s another Monica quote that comes to mind here, again regarding domestic control. When Chandler hires a maid and Monica expresses her discomfort with the idea, Chandler says, “Honey, I know you don’t like to relinquish control.” Monica replies, “‘Relinquish’ is just a fancy word for ‘lose’!”

I laugh at this line because I can see myself in it, even though I honestly don’t feel the same way. I do believe there is true strength and contentment that comes from relinquishing things, control in particular, as it’s just another expression of unnecessary attachment (to expectations, ideas and objects that give us no real lasting pleasure or happiness).

Monica’s character in the above examples is of course a caricature, and only represents a small portion of my own personality. It is helpful though, I think, to examine these caricatures and assess how valuable these parts of myself are.

Do I gain pleasure or happiness from being in control? Absolutely – but only when there was no-one around to interfere. When I lived alone, worked remotely, and had no significant relationships with anyone living nearby, I was accountable to no-one but myself and didn’t have to accommodate other people’s habits.

Am I happier now that I am sharing my life and home with another person? Immeasurably so. But is it easier? No. No it is not.

Rational brain vs. emotional brain

I have high expectations, it’s true. I hold myself to them, and inevitably project that out to the people around me, whether it’s my partner, friends, or colleagues. And even though Jake probably has to bear the brunt of it more frequently, I don’t mean to give the impression that he is the only one – or the worst! I can easily recall situations with close friends where I have expressed frustration that they are not meeting my expectations, often regarding communication or committing to plans. These are things I feel are important to hold myself to and, rightly or wrongly (more often wrongly) I tend to hold others to the same standards.

At work, I have felt similarly affronted when meetings I’ve scheduled get repeatedly rescheduled for non-urgent reasons. I feel deprioritised and disrespected, like my colleagues think their time is more valuable than mine. It is frustrating when I’ve set aside time in my schedule, which is also busy, to prepare for a meeting where I might need their input on something, and then told I have to simply put that on hold because their day/week is crazy.

The rational part of my brain gets it – their time is more valuable in terms of what we all get paid, and I also know that everyone’s schedule gets crazy sometimes. But when a pattern emerges where the efforts I put in are regularly dismissed as less important than whatever my colleagues have to do, it doesn’t inspire me to keep putting my best in when I end up feeling underappreciated.

Ultimately, I get that this is just a part of life, and it’s not as if these situations are a big deal. They don’t derail my day or leave me with any lasting feelings of negativity or frustration. I reschedule the work meetings or the Skype calls with friends, I do something else, I move on. But it would be nice if they were non-issues instead of small issues.

I’ve long thought of myself as someone who handles change and difficulty well – after all, I’ve lived through divorces, custody battles, a life-changing car crash, moving to America and starting a new life, finding out I’d have to move back to the UK with less than three months to adjust to the idea….then moving back, with no job, no money, no home, and figuring out a way to not just survive it all, but thrive in the face of life not going to plan.

I have often wondered if all the big challenges I’ve faced in my life have made me better at handling the smaller, day-to-day obstacles everyone faces. It seems like they should, right? But what I think actually happened was, even as a child, I got so overwhelmed by the big stuff that I held on tighter to the few small things I could control. I prided myself on being able to roll with life’s punches, but failed to see the trees that make up the forest.

It means my responses to different situations play out something like this:

Uproot my life and move 3,000 miles back to a country I didn’t want to return to? Fine, bring it on.

But come home to a messy kitchen? WHAT ARE YOU TRYING TO DO TO ME?!

It again comes down to projecting my expectations of myself onto those around me. I can’t get frustrated at anyone for the fact I had to move back to the UK, because it was no-one’s fault, just one of those unfortunate, shit-happens kind of things that test our resolve and give us the opportunity to grow. I can see the virtue in going with the flow.

But if I’ve asked someone to clean the kitchen and I come home instead to find food, plates, whatever, I know exactly where – specifically, at whom – to point my frustration. It wasn’t out of anyone’s control. It was simply disregarded. My emotional brain then takes the unnecessary leap from “this person didn’t do what I asked of them” to “this person doesn’t respect me and doesn’t care that I asked them to do something.” Even before I know why the kitchen hasn’t been cleaned, I assume there is no reason good enough, because it doesn’t compare with having to move 3,000 miles.

So what I’m realising is this: my emotional brain responds to these situations by going, yeah yeah, we’re all busy, we all have unexpected stuff that comes up – but did you have to uproot your entire life today? No? So why didn’t the kitchen get done? 

My rational brain doesn’t stand a chance as long as that’s the dominant narrative. There are other examples too, where my emotional brain uses the shitty stuff I’ve been through as a marker against which no-one else’s problems measure up.

Whoa. 

That would be kind of hilarious if it weren’t so disruptive and counterproductive to my life goals of a happy, harmonious life shared with those I love.

Let’s step back and think about goals.

#1 – stop comparing myself to others. Usually this advice is given when someone feels they are inadequate as a result of this comparison – for me, it’s the opposite: I find others lacking, which is just as toxic. I need to remember that everyone has a hard battle to fight, and they are all equally valid. No comparisons necessary.

#2 – stop taking things so personally. If my colleagues reschedule meetings, it’s because they have deadlines and I don’t. If my friends can’t Skype, it’s because our lives are busy and there’s a 5-hour time difference that makes finding time for each other really hard. I need to cut everyone some slack, and remember the times I’ve had to ask others for the same understanding.

#3 – recognise when my emotional brain is writing the narrative. If I’m feeling disproportionately emotional in response to something, I need to step back and ask myself which part of me is telling the story. Is it my self-centred, judgemental, emotional brain? Or is it my patient, understanding, rational brain? If it’s the former, I need to bench it and bring in the latter, because that’s my star player.

#4 – communicate, even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard. I need to stop being afraid to say how I feel just because I don’t like how I’m feeling. Keeping these thoughts to myself only gives them strength; saying them out loud diminishes their power and shows just how weak they are in the light of day. Let’s keep talking.

Perhaps, if I can work on these goals and any others I come up with as I work through these challenges, I will reach a place where the little Monica inside of me isn’t worried about a baby – or any other life change, big or small – coming in and messing up the ribbon drawer.

If there’s a mess, so be it. I won’t worry about tidying up all the ribbons – I’ll be too busy dancing.

 

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