Sailing With Anxiety, Stress Management

Tantrum Prevention 102: Expectations

Scraping 42 year old adhesive off of my hull for hundreds of hours and trying not to cry or yell the whole time.

Expectations are one of the core roots of suffering. We could end this blog here, but I will humbly expand.

It’s great to make plans and have goals, it’s even better to be able to adapt when needed and to fail well when necessary or unavoidable. Adaptation is our ability to think creatively and flexibly and go with the flow. Failing well is when we use each experience as a learning opportunity and can have compassion for our mistakes. Compassion isn’t just sympathy, or even condoning our actions, it is about having understanding for them.

Sailing and working on boats literally never work out the way you plan. Sometimes this is for the best and magical encounters with sea life, pristine bays, or magnificent sunsets or sunrises occur. These are the moments that you breathe in and have deep gratitude for the wonder of wandering and the abundance the unpredictability of nature has to offer.

Sometimes this also looks like a project that you think should take 2 days and $60 and it turns into $500 and over 100 hours more. (True story from Poopsie, insert tantrums here.) As we discussed in Tantrum Prevention 101: The Body, a tantrum is when you can no longer keep your cool and things are said or done that might go into the asshole category of things. Or it might look like shutting down, quitting, crying or over medicating.

What is one to do? Admit your fail and adapt. Adaptation starts with acceptance. You cannot move through to creative problem solving without being totally in the moment and following the direct path in front of you: you know, the unexpected and often unwanted one. This sounds relatively straight forward, but it is easier said than done because this isn’t all cognitive. It has to do with your nervous system.

In the biz, as I like to refer to my field of psychology, we talk about tolerance of frustration a lot. Sometimes it is also referred to as distress tolerance. It is your ability to regulate your feelings, stay calm, and focus in difficult situations. The first step to acceptance is awareness. If you are not aware of your heart rate starting to increase and your palms getting sweaty, you are definitely not going to notice how your mind is starting to go to an autopilot and becoming increasingly unclear. Then you definitely are not going to have access to respond instead of react and stop yourself from throwing your rubber glove coated in sticky gross stinky adhesive across the boat and yelling, “FUCK THIS SHIT!!!!” (Again: true story.)

So, start with the body friends. Notice your heart rate going up and stop. BREATHE. Take a break, take a walk, put in some tunes, do something soothing and distracting for a bit to reset. If you can catch it early enough, or even just make plans of working for 15 minutes then break etc….this might help any homicidal tendencies that come up.

Experience and context are also a huge part of learning to tolerate frustration. The more experience you have, the more context and thus tolerance. When I first bought my boat I thought I was such an organized and good planner, that working on her would be a series of projects that would be challenging, but straight forward. Huge and very naïve expectation. I even thought that because I have re-decked and refurbished a small dinghy sailboat before, or because I half converted a Seattle metro transit bus into an RV when I was a hippy living in the woods in the 1990’s, that I had mad skillz and could do it. Wrong. A keelboat, while having similar systems, is her own beast.

So it was a delightful set up for me to be continually frustrated as each project on my 42 year old boat became longer, more expensive, and leading to more projects. I had no experience or context to put any of this into so my “Fuck it” button was pretty short fused and got pressed often. My well researched and thought out plans were constantly having mini to catastrophic fails at each turn. My own insecurities started to mount and lots of self-doubt came up around my abilities. This made things harder. A million unexpected issues arose and I was overwhelmed often. I am deeply impressed at my creative ability to swear and how many variations of FUCK I can string into angry but cohesive sentences.

I am stubborn. It’s like if someone tells me I can’t do something, even if I tell myself that, I am drawn to doing exactly that. It’s near pathological willfulness at times and my persistence and determination, while productive, can be a bit insane. I try to temper this with my obsession of health and the study of psychology to bring in as much sanity as I can to my propensity to be driven. We all have our stuff, and you don’t become a therapist by accident. It is very important in all of this to know what your stuff is. Your stuff, aka, neurosis and habits, are your markers in life for growth. Don’t avoid them, go toward them, make friends with them, learn to work with them. They all have a double edge of wisdom and challenge. Grow the wisdom, address the challenge.

So I did what I usually do to address my challenges, I researched and I talked with more experienced people. Being vulnerable and asking for help and support is a strength. Thank you so very much more experienced people, you know who you are. You know, the ones that saw the look of deep relief on my face when you shared that you lose it on your boat too. The ones who told me that wanting to burn your boat to the bottom of the sound or push your partner off the stern while underway are normal feelings and reassured me to just keep going and not do that.

Through this normalization of the process I felt not so alone. I learned to have a more compassionate dialogue with myself and my sailing process. That dialogue goes something like this, “Jenn, you are learning. You don’t know what you are doing half the time and that’s okay. You are doing your best. You are growing. Every mistake is another chance to get better, you can’t learn unless you fuck up a bunch and that’s good for you. Chill out, take care of yourself, and keep going. But Jenn, go gently and sanely.” What kind of dialogue do you need?

I use myself as an example here, and obviously my habit is to get angry and irritable when upset that something is not working out. I also get hard on myself, having internal expectations that are unrealistic. Others can shut down, get distracted and even quit all together…or not even let themselves try in the first place. Some people reach for a bottle or medicate themselves to get through. Know your habits. Learn what you need to do to work with them to get your brain back online and your mind open: because the flip side to expectation is possibility. That’s the magical creative space where we find the flow and come up with even better answers. We get there through calm and letting go.

I think sailors are amazing at this kind of divergent thinking, and have to be. I’ve seen some serious MacGyver moves on the water in intense situations that saved the day. This is when shit went down fast, people kept their cool and problem solved in crazy ways that worked. Sometimes those fast situations are easier than long, drawn out boat projects that are tedious and take endurance.

Keeping your eye on the prize is also important. Doing it without set expectations is a dance. You may not always know how to get there, when you will get there, or what it will be when you get there. But getting there is the most satisfying and glorious thing you can imagine. I have never had so much pride as when I reach a destination, finish a project, or learn a new skill as I have had in sailing. Because this sport takes a ton of grit, a lot of different kinds of intelligence and skill, and time. It is not just about the destination, but the journey, and sailing is a journey that never ends. Good job sailors!

A final short hand to this blog is: growing your window of tolerance for uncertainty, ambiguity and failure is the best way to become a fucking rock star. Sailing will by default set you up to do this. It is critical to train, study, make the best preparations you can and try to take calculated risks and make informed decisions. Equally critical is letting that all go out the window so you can make room for plan b,c,d and the on the fly plan z that you pulled out of your ass a second ago.

One person I spoke to about my tantrums around boat expectations said it best. The great boat designer Robert Perry said to me in a brief conversation at the 2018 Port Townsend Wooden Boat Festival: “You started out with an irrational decision, you can’t make it rational now. It’s a boat.”

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