How to Welcome Surprises

Softening your defenses against an unpredictable world is a form of realism.

Black Iris VI (1936) by Georgia O’Keeffe

I spent most of my life disliking surprises. When you grow up around wildly unpredictable people who nevertheless expect you to refrain from surprising them, you develop an adaptive habit of treating your own cells as the enemy. All variability in mood and attitude feels like a personal failure, expectations of yourself and others are set way too high, and total control becomes the goal instead of joy. You want control over your own feelings, control over your environment, control over the people around you, control over the past and the present and the future.

Many people who are allergic to surprises and addicted to control aren’t consistently rigid. Often they’re very spontaneous and impulsive, because that feels like a way of escaping the anxious half-absent control of their own unpredictable but inflexible parents. They also tend to resist routines and schedules out of some unresolved fear of oppression from external forces, which can translate to a fear of commitment and even intimacy. They want to commune with other people, but they relate the best to people like them, who are some strange combination of wild and controlling. They like to see effusiveness and impulsivity and restraint in the same person. They don’t relate to people who aren’t outwardly conflicted.

Now think about that for a minute: Surprises unsettle you, but all of your favorite people are both controlling but unpredictable, effusive but unsteady, anxious but also avoidant, loyal but flakey, often generous but sometimes wildly self-serving.

It’s a serious challenge to trust people – friends and coworkers and bosses and partners – when you’re paranoid about being let down, anxious about being abandoned (but also fearful of becoming trapped), high strung about last minute changes, and nervous about being oppressed by someone else’s fickle whims. Paradoxically, surprise-haters tend to present the same labyrinth of challenges to the people around them: We want to make rigid plans in advance but we’re too moody to commit fully, we want to lean on others but we hate feeling vulnerable and we aren’t always available emotionally (even though we might people-please and serve others in spite of our emotional distance),  and we’re impulsive and self-indulgent but we encounter these traits as unsteady or selfish in others.

Another negative side effect of an allergy to surprises is that you start to eliminate surprises from your life until it’s very small. You dump surprising people and quit surprising jobs and distance yourself from surprising situations. You become a creature of habit. You cut out highs and lows and live in the gray middle. You’re too anxious for adventure, so things stay very safe and a little repetitive instead.

But the most intensely negative consequence of an allergy to surprises might be this: You expect your own body and mind to perform the same tasks and functions consistently, without delays, no matter what physical and emotional challenges you’re up against. You treat productivity and capability and even-tempered functioning as the ultimate goal.

You treat yourself like a robot, in other words.

And when something happens that surprises you – you get sick or depressed or stop sleeping at night, or you suddenly don’t want to do your job anymore, or someone comes into your life and rearranges your ideas about yourself – you fight back against it instead of feeling everything you can and learning as much as you can from it. You’re slow to ask “What is this moment trying to tell me?” and instead ask, “How do I make things the same as they were before?”

There are countless other consequences to this aversion to change: You don’t have enough adventures. You don’t meet new people that often, and you’re not open to them when you do, or you categorize them out of your life – too old, too young, too weird, too normal, probably not my type, probably doesn’t like me anyway. Or you welcome people in too quickly (your spontaneous, effusive side), and then feel bewildered by the fact that they are so different from you (your rigid, controlling side), when they’re actually a lot like you. Maybe their constellation of personality traits even maps directly onto yours: They’re avoidant, sensitive, anxious about being judged badly, and expect far too much of themselves, to the point where they divest in others swiftly instead of risking vulnerability and disappointment in themselves and the world.

Learning to welcome surprises begins with adjusting your attitude about your own inconstant nature. Instead of treating yourself like a malfunctioning robot every time you stumble or feel sad or feel bewildered by some shift in the atmosphere around you, instead of getting angry at yourself for resisting work or not wanting to do the things you know you should do or feeling distant in social situations or lacking energy or ambition, instead of feeling disgusted at yourself for having regular human desires and limits, you have to try to greet the surprises of your body and mind as mysteries that point to some deeper need or shifting priority in your life.

In other words, instead of patrolling the vast, diverse galaxy of your mind and body like Darth Vader, demanding obedience and consistency, you invite the rebel forces to brunch and Luke Skywalker joins your book club and also becomes your running buddy. (Honestly, it’s incredible that I haven’t used a Star Wars metaphor in this newsletter until now.)

Welcoming surprises within yourself is hard. You don’t have to be a control freak to dislike a sudden shift to sadness, a rush of nostalgia or fear, a sudden lag in ambition, a surge of anxiety or stress, or even a flood of passion for something new that threatens to disrupt your life. Self-care wouldn’t be a thing if we didn’t all struggle with our inconsistent needs and ever-changing moods. Most of us have to be repeatedly reminded to take our feelings and insights seriously, to respect our bodies and instincts, to check in with how things are going underneath our own skin. But the mere notion that we can’t will ourselves into behaving the same way every day, producing the same amount, showing up in the same ways for people, is unwelcome to most people. Our culture is built on the myth that we can all behave like conquering superhero robots day in and day out, and any failure to live that way reflects poorly on us.

When you slow down and welcome surprises, though, even the ones that change your mind about the world and threaten your rigid habits, you start to become a very different kind of creature in the world — a more accepting friend, a more loving partner, a more trustworthy confidante. You become more flexible but less unthinkingly people-pleasing. You become more honest but less demanding.

When you respect your own experiences and honor the unpredictable shifts in your own body and mind, including your low energy days and your bad moods and your slow mind and your frustrating inner rebellions (setting up irritatingly clumsy operations on ice planets, of all stupid places!), it makes you more generous and softer and kinder to the people around you. You become smarter, too, and even more efficient (not that this should be your stated goal, it just happens to be a side effect). You learn to milk moments of clear-headedness and energy and inspiration for all they’re worth. You learn to take regular breaks and you don’t expect yourself to be consistently energetic and inspired. You learn to wander through the world with curiosity, refusing to let your knee-jerk aversion to hassles keep you from doing new things.

Welcoming surprises turns you into a realist, in other words. You expect setbacks and shifts in mood. You expect other people to act like human beings with flaws and moods and their own particular needs. You expect conflict and snags and cancellations and disappointments. You expect to feel moody in your childhood home and sad at your dad’s grave, but you also expect to feel unexpectedly melancholy at odd times when everyone else seems happy, and unexpectedly cheerful when others seem sad. You welcome joy but you also welcome nostalgia, hesitation, grief, even confusion, and you slowly learn how to value people who recognize that these warring forces inside all of us are what make life vivid and interesting.

Because life is not a car on a racetrack, going faster and faster in tiny circles. Life is a meandering, wild, gorgeous mess of mazes and trap doors. Your body is a galaxy filled with hostile forces and sexy aliens and daring heroes, and the outside world is an infinite universe of wonder and delight, bracing and horrifically sad and captivating. The job isn’t to resist how complex and unpredictable life can be, or to ignore what’s happening around you. The job is to show up and experience everything without backing away. But you have options: You can slow down and observe, you can stumble and flail, you can lose heart and cry, you can run out of fuel and stop at the side of the road and sit down in the dust without a single clue about what comes next. Don’t scold yourself and rush yourself. Welcome the twists in the road. Wander a little. Embrace curveballs and chaos. You have time.

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