Disrupt routine to break the cycle of anxiety
It's anxiety holding you back, not your personality, your genes, your lack of willpower
Rigidity is in the eyes of the beholder: Ask Jack about how he runs his everyday life, and he'll tell you likes his routines - they provide a familiar structure and rhythm to his day; ask his wife Annie, and she'll tell you Jack is more than a bit too rigid, too inflexible, and at times it can drive her nuts.
If you're reading this you may be wondering if you are a bit too dependent on your routines, would like to be a bit more spontaneous, more flexible. Or maybe you're a partner of someone who is like Jack, and like Annie can find it hard to live with at times.
The underlying driver for this type of behaviour is anxiety. Jack lives in a smaller comfort zone than Annie. While he's in it, he doesn't feel anxious, he has a sense of control, he appreciates the familiar. Where Annie would see a new experience as exciting Jack just feels anxious - out of his element, less in control, worried a bit about what might happen next. And so, it's easy to fall into a vicious cycle - Jack relies on his routines to feel calm, and the more he does, the less he is able to tolerate stepping outside of them, and so leans even more heavily on his routines to shape his everyday life.
Here's how Jack (or you) can learn to loosen up:
Realise that anxiety is the enemy: It's anxiety holding you back, not your personality, your genes, your lack of willpower. You're not trying to eliminate anxiety (the routines already are doing that) but expand your comfort zone and learn to tolerate anxiety better.
Experiment with change: The key here is taking baby steps. Jack can keep the structure of his Saturday but experiment with changing the order of what he does, or leaving something out. He and Annie can plan to do something different on a Saturday night to break up their takeout-and-Netflix routine.
Expect to feel a bit uncomfortable: Nuff said.
Practice listening to your emotions: Jack is essentially running his life on autopilot, his ingrained habits and there is little spontaneity not only because he struggles with anxiety, but he is out of touch with his emotions. Here he wants to practice paying attention to his feelings. He may realise, for example, he doesn't really want to mow the grass on Saturday or wash his car and can experiment not doing so. If he does he needs to expect to feel a bit anxious, a bit guilty.
Pat yourself on the back: And that's okay. This is about doing different, not doing right. Any steps out of your comfort zone are a success. High fives all around.
How Annie can help: Annie also wants to try thinking that this anxiety and not Jack being stubborn or controlling or too set in his ways. Rather than building up resentment or periodically snapping and being critical of him, she can try having a calm but clear conversation with Jack about how his rigidity is a problem for her and see what and how Jack is willing to experiment with to build in more flexibility.
And because Jack doesn't deal with change well, she needs to keep him plenty of notice for any upcoming changes that she'd like - mention on Monday about possibly going out for dinner on Saturday or having her sister over on Sunday (along with her vision of how the Sunday will unfold) - rather than springing it on him on Saturday morning when he's already mentally locked into his day. This heads-up gives Jack time to mull and ponder and get used to the idea. Finally, she wants to heap on the positive feedback - making sure she thanks him for stepping up and breaking out.
Are you ready to loosen up?
Bob Taibbi is an author and has 45 years of clinical experience. -Psychology Today