Going With the Flow: A Letter to My Younger Self
Let’s be honest: it’s been a hectic year. From start to finish.
Finding balance has been difficult. Everything has been topsy turvy. It feels like we’ve been living vicariously through the characters in Netflix’s Stranger Things in our own upended version of the Upside Down.
The number of unexpected events that seemed to just pop up out of nowhere, real life Whac-A-Moles with real — very real — repercussions, caught the world off guard. Let’s just say them all in one sentence: Ready, set —
covidclimatechangepresidentialelectionhurricanescovidwildfiresmorecovidpolitics — wait I never got to say g — policebrutalityprotestsblacklivesmatter — I still haven’t said g — newpresidentelecthopefullyacovidvaccinebutthennocovidvaccinebutthenfinallyalightattheend(orthebeginning?)ofthetunnel.
Whew. Big Breath. That was a lot to process. Notice how I never got to say “go”? It’s like a grammatical representation of how our year felt. Trying to prepare, to recalibrate, to align mind and body for the next wave of Whac-A-Moles, but never quite in time to stop those weaselly little rodents from popping up and hitting you boom!, square in the nose (or whatever body part hurts most).
See, preparation is great. But preparation is only great to a certain extent, and too much preparation for too specific a situation can hinder rather than facilitate what we consider to be the right actions. Especially in social settings.
One of the greatest challenges has, is, and will probably always be figuring out what to say, how to say it, and when to deliver that message. It’s neither easily said nor done.
Of course, that probably doesn’t offer you (the reader) much comfort. But there is one HUGE concept that has helped me get through this year semi-sane — and has helped me to better navigate challenging social situations with more ease. Allow me to introduce you.
Perspective this, perspective that, blah blah blah. I’m sure you’ve heard this word a lot from friends, relatives, or teachers. It’s a widely discussed concept that can get old if not explained correctly, but it’s a cliché for good reason.
Perspective is powerful. Perspective holds power over our thoughts, which determine how we see the world around us, which in turn dictates how we act — or to be more specific, how we react and respond to events in our life.
Reacting and responding is an important concept and is especially key in social settings. Why?
First, let me say this: humans like knowing. We often choose to live in the psychological world of what ifs. What will happen if I say this to my boss, my old time friend I haven’t seen in 10 years, my crush? What if I don’t say the right thing? What is the right thing to say? What if they aren’t into me? What if this isn’t the right decision?
All of these thoughts deserve equal consideration, especially in social settings that involve real people and real emotions. The problem is that we don’t know where to draw the line between adequate planning and over-planning. So, we play it safe and overthink. Every single scenario. Each. And. Every. Word.
But that’s taxing and it doesn’t have to be that way. We can learn how to balance adequate planning with self-trust.
Because when we get our heads out of this world of what ifs, we return back into reality. We return to what is actually here, right now, in front of us. To what is tangible, to what is anything but imaginary. Not to the made-up meanings in our minds. Not to the past wrong things we’ve said, or the future wrong things we could say.
But to the actual words spoken by the person sitting across from you. To the firm handshake your boss gives you after an exhausting week of filing papers. To not just what your crush says but also the tone in their voice when they say it after your first date.
I wish that leaving the world of overthinking and what ifs was easier said than done. Unfortunately, it’s not. However, it can be done with practice and experience. Lots and lots of it. And some more.
This is where perspective comes in to play. Adopting the right perspective will help you to achieve what you want — and will help you to become more comfortable with reacting and responding, instead of simply articulating pre-planned speech or action.
A technique that I’ve found particularly helpful is reference point setting. Reference point setting, in short, refers to the internal process of evaluating your own desires against the reality of any given current situation. This concept may be better explained in concrete terms, so I am going to give an example scenario.
Let’s say that Me #2 is going to meet my crush for the first time on a date. As I’m waiting at the restaurant, all I can think about is the fact that I’m so nervous and will she like what I’m wearing and what if I say the wrong thing. And she hasn’t even arrived yet!
My thought process of resetting reference points might look something like this:
Why am I nervous? Well, I’m nervous because I don’t know how she feels about me. I think that I have feelings for her and I don’t want to say anything that might me look dumb.
Hold on now, though. She’s already said yes to a date with me. She’s not even here yet. And when she does get here, we’re not having a discussion about starting a family, the whole point of this in the first place is to just get to know her as a person. I don’t even know if I have feelings for her yet, just like she probably doesn’t know if she has feelings for me.
We must be genuinely interested in each other, that’s why we agreed to see each other in the first place. So really, all I need to do is be enthusiastic and demonstrate that genuine interest to her during conversation (which shouldn't be a difficult task if those feelings are truly genuine).
Oh, I just remembered something. She told me she was an athlete — I am too — that’s so cool! I want to know more about that, I’ll ask her about it later tonight. And she said she liked photography. I’ve never done photography before but always appreciate beautiful pictures. Hopefully she will tell me more about that tonight. . ..
And bam, just like that, we’re off and running. Nervousness — who dat? (Okay okay, a little bit of nervousness is good — but use it as fuel for enthusiasm!).
This example may seem oversimplified, but it’s not! Of course, how those thoughts and feelings translate into action is all context-dependent, but as for the thought process itself — it’s real! So very real.
This doesn’t mean that training your brain to engage in this type of re-processing during high-stakes situations is easy. In fact, it’s very complex. And it doesn’t work all the time, even with deliberate effort.
What is important, though, is to understand how this thought process might shape out. Although the general process follows a similar outline — apprehension to practical evaluation to enthusiasm — determining exactly what catalyzes that “hold on now” moment and the thoughts that follow is ultimately up to you.
The reality is that you’ll never reach a point where you can always live in the present moment, not overthink and perfectly balance adequate planning with self-trust. You’re never going to always make the right first impression. You might even never make the right first impression (although God forbid this happen!).
However, regardless of what happens, what you can always choose to do is choose the way you see your life. You can recognize that the choices you make result from your own desires which are ultimately rooted in your own good. You can learn to trust yourself and by doing so can find joy in the process, rather than the destination.
Finding the perspective that works the best for you will be an ongoing process. Whac-A-Moles are going to be popping up all the time. You won’t hit every one of them perfectly. You’ll guess the wrong hole and hit air. You’ll react, but not soon enough. Or you’ll react, but will injure yourself in the process of swinging. With enough practice, though, you’ll improve.
You’ll start to focus not on what you’ve missed or done wrong but rather on the few hits you’ve made. You’ll start to see your own progress. Maybe, even, you’ll realize that the game isn’t even that important. Head high, you’ll start to see all of the beautiful things and people and life around you in the arcade of life. You’ll start to have more fun with life, taking things as they come and go, easing in and out with its ebbs and flows.
The point is, you’re going to make mistakes and there will be unexpected events that demand improv — but those are the moments that breathe meaning into life.
So, the next time when things go south (it’s inevitable) or you do something that’s embarrassing (also inevitable), just laugh it off. Own it and smile in the spirit of being alive — and being human. That’s certainly nothing of which to be ashamed.