I’ve talked before about my life as a recovering anorexic and perfectionist. One huge step in overcoming perfectionist/anorexic thinking came when I began to view failures as opportunities to learn and grow, rather than reflections on my value as a human being. Since starting to think that way, I’ve had many such growth opportunities, but never so many as in 2020.

With all the unexpected challenges 2020 threw at us came an avalanche of failures on my part. Oh my gosh, it was — continues to be — is — the greatest number of failures per day, week, month, or year probably in my entire life. I don’t say this as a way of denigrating myself, but to realistically describe the situation. I thrive and succeed based on routine, but even the words “routine” and “2020” hardly fit in a sentence together. Toss me into a new situation, like pretty much every day of 2020, and I’m pretty certain to fail at something in it.

Good news: All that failing means I’ve had an unprecedented number of opportunities to learn and grow in the last year. Reflecting on the entire year, two major lessons stood out to me that I want to carry with me into the future.

Lesson One: Slow Down

I’m not talking about biking, although I surely did slow down there, too. I mean when I’m interacting with people, I quickly jump to an emotional response without giving my logical brain time to process the situation. There’s a good evolutionary reason to have the fast-brain response: Our ancestors needed fear to get them fleeing from that saber-toothed tiger, or whatever predator. Can’t have the ol’ noggin processing whether the predator poses a danger while said predator kills and eats you.

Okay, so the fast-brain response makes sense. In today’s world, though, slow-brain logic processing serves us much better. If I feel sidelined at work, that feeling shouldn’t rule my response to the situation. I need to give my slow brain enough time to think it through: “Is my boss really deliberately sidelining me? What has he said? Can I trust him? What else is going on in his world that might contribute to his behavior? What evidence supports and refutes that theory?”

Many of my 2020 failures stem directly from fast-brain emotional responses dictating how I reacted in a situation, when further, calmer consideration brought me to a completely different final conclusion. Unfortunately, by the time my slow-brain evaluation finished, I’d already thrown a spanner into the works with my emotional response.

Hence the goal to work on slowing down my response. Maybe I’ll literally count to 10 before saying something. Maybe I’ll write down what I want to say and then wait a few minutes to see if that’s really the right response. I’m not sure exactly what slowing down looks like, but I need to find a way to force myself to stop and think more carefully before responding to high-emotion situations.

Lesson Two: Make Plans, but Let Go of Expectations

If 2020 didn’t force you to re-evaluate how you think about the future, I’m not sure what rock you’ve been living under. Welcome to 2021. Joe Biden will be president shortly, although not soon enough.

ANYWAY, let’s not get sidetracked by the ever-fascinating vortex of political commentary swirling around.

A therapist helpfully defined a plan as something you think will happen, but you’re flexible about it. If it happens, that’s great; if it doesn’t, that’s okay too. It’s good to make plans. We need plans to organize our time, even if they don’t always happen. Expectations he defined as something we think will happen that MUST occur or we’ll experience great distress. Expectations should be few and far between, since when they don’t pan out, someone tends lose their mind a bit.

I had an excellent plan-vs-expectation experience last weekend. On Saturday I set up my bike trainer in the garage, hooked up my laptop, making sure to plug it in to the charger since I knew my ride would exceed the battery life, and started riding. I enjoyed a solid effort chasing another rider who was just a smidge faster than me. I got very wrapped up in the chase, finally catching him after slowly closing for 57 miles. Feeling triumphant, I started extending my lead as we climbed a big hill, when all of a sudden my computer shut down. The battery, which hadn’t been charging after all, died. I emitted a visceral howl and a stream of extremely NSFW invective. I threw my failed charger against the wall of the garage. It was a tantrum worthy of any thwarted toddler.

When I slowed down (See “Lesson One: Slow Down,”) and thought about it later, I realized I’d set up an expectation for myself. I expected my computer to keep working, and furthermore, I expected I wouldn’t experience any mechanicals since I was riding in the garage. But my computer battery dying weighs in at right about the same inconvenience as changing a flat tire; it’s basically the technology equivalent of a mechanical. I had to switch chargers and start a new ride, picking up where I’d left off. My rabbit escaped, but I’d always known that would happen when we came down the other side of the hill. In the grand scheme of rides, not ideal, but not terrible, either.

My overreaction came because I had set up unrealistic expectations for myself. Instead of saying “I’m planning for my technology to work, but if it doesn’t, I’ll deal with it,” I told myself “My technology WILL work.” When my technology failed, it was the emotional equivalent of riding into a brick wall.

This perfect example illustrates why using plans and flexible thinking allows resiliency in otherwise stressful situations. I’m learning, slowly, to plan for events but to hold them lightly. If it happens, great; if it doesn’t, I’ll deal with whatever does happen.

That’s got to be the ultimate lesson of 2020: Expect nothing. Plan for everything. And don’t forget to buy extra toilet paper.

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