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Control freaks: how to handle things going wrong

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Today’s post is for the control freaks amongst us; the people who find it really upsetting when things don’t go to plan, when something goes wrong, or when what they had scheduled gets disrupted by something outside of their control.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m one of these people!

I’ve got this weird thing where if somebody changes my plans – even if they improve them – I get upset. I feel resistance to somebody “fucking with” my schedule, or something going “wrong” that disrupts the rest of my day. I have an immediate emotional reaction that urges me to engage in stressed-out behaviors, making the situation worse when it didn’t even need to be bad in the first place.

I’ve since recognized this as being a control issue. I have a negative reaction to any evidence that shows me I’m not really in control. I just hate being reminded of that!

Luckily, I’m not alone in this. I have many clients who have this problem, and as a group we’ve actually come together to create a five-step process for dealing with this when it comes up. Rather than trying to turn off that natural control-freak tendency that we have, we’re going to change our reaction when it kicks in, so that we can behave in a more helpful way whenever things go to shit.

#1 prepare: assume the worst

One of the stupidest things you can do going into any situation, from something as ordinary as going to the supermarket all the way through something as massive as traveling around the world, is to hope that it will go well. This is only setting yourself up for failure. Hoping, wishing, expecting, having a very specific idea in your mind as to how it should go – it almost certainly is not going to go like that.

Even if it goes better than that you’ll be upset because it didn’t go the way you think it should have gone, or the way you hoped it would go. And one way that you can overcome this is actually preparing for it to go very, very badly. It’s what the Stoics would call negative visualization.

If I’m going to the supermarket, I’ll prepare for them being out of all the products that I want to buy, forcing me to find substitutes. Or they’ll be randomly closed today for some public holiday I wasn’t aware of. Or I’ll forget my wallet. I imagine that something unfortunate will happen that’s really going to screw up my plan. I’m preparing myself mentally and emotionally for that so that when it happens, I’m more likely to react with “Oh, here it is” rather than “Oh my God, why did this happen?!”

This isn’t the same thing as being pessimistic, where you assume everything will always be bad. As the saying goes, “Hope for the best and plan for the worst.” Go into any situation assuming it could go very, very badly and prepare for that to happen but don’t let that stop you from going into it. Be prepared for it also to go well, or for you to at least try and make something good happen even if it goes badly.

#2 pause: stop when you react badly

There’ll be this dawning awareness in you when you start to react to things going “wrong.” It might be a short, sharp reaction, or it might be a gradually growing sense of discomfort.

For example, I might be sitting there with my complete plan for the day, typing away on my computer, when my wife comes in and asks me to do something unplanned at 3:00 this afternoon. Immediately, I’ll feel this kind of tenseness coming into my chest. It’s my warning sign that I’m being surprised with a change that I don’t like.

What I’ve learned to do when I feel that tenseness is to stop myself from trying to solve any problems, plan anything, or strategize. Just stop and go, “Aha, I’m having that reaction, I need to really slow my shit down right now.” Because if I act quickly on this reaction, I’m going to do something that makes my life worse. This reaction tends to lead to unhelpful behaviors.

When I’m feeling that reaction, I’ll slow down time, put down my tools, put down everything I’m doing and just stop, because I need to reset.

This is the best point to intervene in this process. If you can get in just as the feelings are building up then you can have the biggest possible impact – you can change the course from where this usually goes into something more helpful and healthy.

#3 process: let go of the old fantasy

Once you’ve paused, you need to start allowing yourself to accept the new reality, and let go of your previous plans which are now just a fantasy. There’s a handover process that needs to occur, where you need to let go of what you thought should happen. Say goodbye to it, because it’s done!

This new surprise, this upset, this thing going wrong, has changed everything. It’s like what’s often called the butterfly effect; this small change will ripple out through the rest of your day and ultimately transform your entire life. You need to come to terms with this before you react to it. If you react in that panicky try-to-get-things-back-on-track way, you’re usually just going to make it worse.

You might be able to get back on track later, but that’s not the step you’re at just yet. Right now you have to incorporate this new piece of information into your reality, and let go of anything that doesn’t fit with it.

For example, if I planned to go for a run at 4pm and I find out my wife has booked an appointment for us at 3pm, there’s a moment where I have to go, “Okay, no matter what happens with the running, it’s not happening at 4pm.” That has to die. I have to let go of that, and anything else that was booked around it needs to also become more flexible because the new appointment is definitely happening.

OK, so maybe she didn’t tell me about it earlier and that would have been more helpful. So what? She has now! That’s all I know; that’s all I’ve got to work with. There’s no point in dwelling on the past, trying to blame or find a reason to be resentful. I just have to come to reality: I’ve got this appointment now and my calendar has to change to fit in this appointment. That’s what I have to face.

Until I can breathe through that and go, “Okay, that’s what I’m going to have to do,” I can’t really move forward. There’s no point in me going “Well, I have to go running at 4pm” because that’s just not a reality. It’s a fantasy and I need to let that go.

#4 zero: remove all pressure

This step is the one that most people neglect. It’s what I call going zero.

This is where you let yourself off the hook from all obligation and pressure to participate or perform. This is an act of acceptance and respect. You need to realize that you never have to do anything, you’re not forced to participate in any way. There’s no pressure on you to achieve anything – that pressure is all inside your mind.

In reality, you can do nothing for a very long time if you feel like it. And you must be allowed that option. This doesn’t mean you’ll stay there forever, but it’s a way to relax into your new reality.

A great example of this is when I went to my engagement party and there were a lot more people there than I was prepared for. Also, I was a lot more tired than I thought I’d be and feeling kind of anti-social, and most of the people there didn’t speak English nor did I know them.

So my picture of what this engagement party should have been was this nice little close-knit group of people I knew. Instead, it turned into this big party full of people I don’t know who I couldn’t be bothered talking to. I immediately felt frustrated, overwhelmed and trapped. These are the warning signs.

Going zero in this moment meant allowing myself the option of just standing still and observing the party, all night long if necessary. Not having to participate, not having to practice speaking Czech, not having to meet new people or entertain anybody. I allowed myself to just be the loner in the corner all night if I want to and gave myself permission to actually do that until I could feel the pressure release.

Eventually, I relaxed, started chatting to some guy, and ended up enjoying the night. I just needed 15mins of zero at the start to let go of my controlling pressure.

That’s what zero is about. You don’t have to do anything beyond just being there. Say you start a confrontation with someone and they react way worse than you thought they were going to. You don’t have to fix it. Just be there. Stay silent and listen. Go zero until you feel that you can move on from zero and don’t move on a second earlier.

You must relieve all pressure to perform or otherwise you’re going to knee-jerk react: you’re going to react in an emotional way, which is likely to make things worse rather than better.

#5 adapt: make the most of it

Adapt is probably most important step. This is where you find an opportunity to make the most of the new situation. Once you’re in that place of zero and the pressure has come off and you’ve reset your expectations to nil, now you can just look out and go, “Well, what can I do in this new reality? How can I make the most of it? I’ve got this appointment at 3:00… maybe I could try running at 2:30 – it’d be interesting to run in a higher temperature. It might test me a little bit more.”

While I was at the party, holding myself in zero, eventually I noticed: “I’m okay. I’m standing here for like 10 minutes. I didn’t have to do anything and all is well. Maybe I’ll go sit by the fire, I wouldn’t mind sitting by the fire.” I just went looking for an opportunity to make this situation enjoyable for myself. It was like starting with a blank slate full of potential.

I had a really big upset once where I missed an international connecting flight in Kuala Lumpur and it was 24 hours until the next flight. It took me a couple of hours to get over that particular upset! Then, after finally achieving zero, I realized there’s a lot of opportunities here. I started posting what I was doing to my BROJO community to share my pain with them and share how I was handling it.

Then I noticed there was a lady crying just a few metres away from me. She was trying to get help from the people who worked there but they were cold and hostile, just ignoring her. So I spoke to her, seeing this as a new opportunity. Long story short: I ended up buying her some food because she was out of money. She just been kicked out of the country but didn’t know how to get home. She couldn’t use any of the airport systems so let her use my phone to call her husband (he bought flights and they managed to resolve the situation).

I was able to take this new “bad” situation and turn it into a very valuable opportunity where I was helpful and kind of a hero, for her at least.

Those opportunities are actually available during any particularly unexpected or upsetting situation, so long as you’re willing to let go of your original plan. Go zero, start over again, and then look for something new – an opportunity to live by your values. And that’s it!


Hopefully, you found that helpful. Please subscribe to the channel and share this around if you did. And, of course, get in touch Dan@brojo.org if you want more personal support or you’re interested in joining the BROJO Community to get more content like this.

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