Trouble dealing with setbacks
April 21, 2021 9:10 PM   Subscribe

I am an obsessive planner and have a really difficult time with deviations from the plan. My emotions get so overwhelming and I really hurt myself and others by not being able to deal with this. I would love some advice.

Recently a lot of things have been super upsetting me in a way I find it difficult to move on from.

The first one is a romantic relationship. I always wanted to get married by a certain timeframe in life. I was dating a person who was not ready to marry during that timeframe but now is. I thought at the beginning that was OK— I was willing to wait for him, because our relationship was young, and he was reasonable about it (wanted to hit certain financial milestones first)— but now that that timeframe has passed in incredibly stressed, sad, and unexcited about getting married, because it just doesn’t seem “right” anymore. This feels totally pathetic and ridiculous but I just can’t find a way to make it feel “right.”

Another one is that we are apartment hunting. We found a great place, but it was put on hold and we were waiting to see if the original applicants would turn it down. I was bummed but resilient. While waiting, the property owners showed us another place that I absolutely LOVED, L-O-V-E-D... and it was snatched out from under us (literally while we were viewing it). I was really bummed again and this time started really crying (in private) and feeling terrible about... my entire life. It turned out the original place was available, but I was so NOT in love with it after seeing the second place that I feel horrible. Really bad. I applied for that place anyway and felt awful about it, and now super regret it, all because I saw a second better place... But I can’t stop having crying jags and can’t let it go! The new place is so cookie cutter with no perks and I feel like it just says something negative about me.

I feel these are both so absurd and yet feel so major and symbolic to me, like all these big events going not-my-way is saying something about how much control I have over my life. Like I don’t have enough and I’m doomed to always be a nonfunctional loser living in a shitty anonymous apartment, getting married old, etc. (I don’t find it pathetic when other women marry older, it’s just that I know I wanted to young, and failed. I assume other women didn’t want to marry until the age they married at (though I suppose some of them feel like me).

I just feel like something is majorly wrong and I can’t get myself to snap out of it. Have you felt this way, and fixed it?
posted by stoneandstar to Human Relations (15 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: This sounds like some depression/anxiety and also some intrusive thoughts. Especially after last year's events it can seem really overwhelming to have your decisions changed by stuff outside your control. Maybe cognitive behavioral therapy could help you with this? There are worksheets online if you don't have access to a therapist.

Sometimes in my own case I sit down and journal out all the different ways a significant event could have happened in my life, if different variables outside of my control had changed. This helps me see how infinite the possibilities of the world are and encourages me to be positive about the future because there is so much I cannot predict.

I also like to read and hear about people older than myself whose lives had unpredictable, interesting twists and turns, and led them to do things differently than they imagined, whether it's a career change, taking up a hobby or cause and excelling, or achieving something huge later in life. I like reading about people who spent years failing before they succeeded and people who fall in love later in life.
posted by zdravo at 9:29 PM on April 21, 2021 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Do you know if you have OCD? There are a few things in your post that make me think of it - something not feeling “right,” the fact that things feel so major and symbolic, the idea of control/loss of control, and, as you termed it, obsessive planning.

If you do or might have OCD, therapy (especially CBT/ERP with someone who specializes in OCD) and/or meds may really help you.

Either way, it’s totally okay to be upset about these things. Marriage and apartment hunting are both big deal things and it’s okay to have strong emotions about them.

It’s also okay to be upset that your partner is on a different timeline than you are, and maybe to be angry that they got their way and you didn’t get yours. The way to deal with that is some really honest conversation, with or without a couples’ therapist.

I have some similarities to you (obsessive planner, wanted to get married earlier than my now husband did, trouble with changes of plans, worried about the broader meaning of certain things). Therapy and meds have helped me a lot. So has time in a solid loving marriage - I can look back now and see it was fine and actually probably good for us to wait longer than I wanted to to get married. So has having a kid - they are REALLY good exposure therapy for not getting your way and plans changing every five minutes! Hang in there. Also happy to chat via MeMail if you want.
posted by bananacabana at 9:29 PM on April 21, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: You sound depressed. You’re creating these rigid categories (women who “married old” vs women who married sooner) to make yourself feel like shit. Real estate is always a nightmare - you should see the level of rejection you’ll experience when you’re trying to buy! You’re doing just fine and should be easier on yourself. Do you have someone to talk to?
posted by cakelite at 9:31 PM on April 21, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: they are REALLY good exposure therapy for not getting your way and plans changing every five minutes

More your flooding than your graduated exposure, so ideally best attempted only with strong support systems already in place.

Have you felt this way, and fixed it?

I have learned, whenever I start heading down this kind of tunnel, to stop and do a quick check for Alwayses and Nevers, then explicitly re-state the thought involved with an Often or a Rarely substituted as appropriate.

This almost always yields a thought that's demonstrably a more accurate description than the one with the Always or Never in it, and dissipates almost all of the doom besides.

It's a pretty good One Weird Trick.
posted by flabdablet at 11:56 PM on April 21, 2021 [5 favorites]

I feel these are both so absurd and yet feel so major and symbolic to me, like all these big events going not-my-way is saying something about how much control I have over my life. Like I don’t have enough

None of us have ANY control over our lives. I would invite you to examine the source of that idea and where you got it. Then I would invite you to abandon it because it is serving you very, very poorly. You live in a world ruled by chaos and it's important to accept that.

"The Butterfly Effect, also known as deterministic chaos, is a phenomenon where equations with no uncertainty will still yield uncertain outcomes, no matter how precisely the computations are performed."
posted by DarlingBri at 12:47 AM on April 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

None of us have ANY control over our lives.

I prefer to think that (a) my control extends only as far outward as my skin and (b) frankly it's a struggle to get it to go even that far.
posted by flabdablet at 1:27 AM on April 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Not super long ago, I asked a similar question here that was basically, "I feel like I am cursed, help?" I had both good friends and acquaintances remark that if a bad thing can happen, it'd probably happen to me. Meanwhile, the vast majority of people I knew seemed to have no trouble dodging the bad luck and pitfalls that I kept running headfirst into. I deeply empathize with feeling like a loser. I was convinced that while other people kept effortlessly winning at life, I must've been deficient or inept in some way and therefore deserving of my decidedly less winning life. I felt marked for karmic retribution, for reasons I didn't understand.

And I completely understand your disappointment about the apartment that was snatched away from you. One of the setbacks that caused the most hurt for me also involved a search for new housing, in which we went from celebrating, telling all our friends, and decorating the whole place in my head, to having to walk away from the contract in short order. Which then caused a lot of stress on my relationship, which caused me to spiral into woeful thoughts about that too.

I received some really great advice in that first thread I linked. And I read this parable of the Chinese farmer:

A farmer and his family in ancient China owned a horse. His neighbors said how lucky he was to have such a fine horse to pull his plow through the fields. The farmer said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

One day the horse broke through the gate and ran away. His neighbors came around to lament his terrible loss, saying it was a terrible bit of bad luck. The farmer said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

Days later the horse returned to the farm along with seven wild horses. His neighbors came around to exclaim his remarkable good fortune, saying, “Now you are rich!” The farmer said, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

A few weeks later the farmer’s son was training the new wild horses and fell off and broke his leg. The neighbors came around to commiserate his misfortune and said, “What bad luck!” The farmer replied, “Maybe yes, maybe no.”

The next week the army came around taking all the able-bodied young men from the village to fight in the war. The farmer’s son with the broken leg was left behind. The neighbors now lamented the loss of their sons and commented on how lucky the farmer was to have his son.

I wrote out a list of all the bad luck things that had caused my carefully laid plans go awry, and what eventually came of them. And to my surprise... with time, not all but many of the bad things actually worked out for the better. Lots of things on my list had absolutely devastated me at the time that they happened. There were things that I cried myself to sleep over, things that I had to go to therapy to work through, and somehow they each ended up mostly okay. Some of them were genuine bullet-dodged moments. And as I kept looking further back, I saw that the real outcome of some of these misfortunes took a very long time to become clear. Years, even.

I mean, it's not over yet. The whole point of the parable is that it all remains to be seen. But it did open my eyes to the fact that something that seems so terrible now may turn out to be for the best later on, and we can't know. It unstuck me from the frame of mind that if things are terrible now, they will always be terrible. I'm able to take a longer view. Ultimately, we just have to keep going and keep doing our best, trust in our own fortitude, and ride out the storm to see what awaits us on the other side.

By the way, after we walked away from that awful house, we found one with impeccable build quality, in a better location, on a bigger lot, AND we paid less for it - I hope the perfect apartment will find you too!
posted by keep it under cover at 2:01 AM on April 22, 2021 [17 favorites]

I look at both of your examples of distress as being justifiably distressing. Where you live is a big deal and having a place you really wanted get taken by someone else is a big blow. I’d be really disappointed and if I didn’t shake myself up, I’d probably spend the lease at the second choice in a bit of mood about what I could have had.

Not being married on a timetable you had your heart set on for many years is also disappointing. Couples create dreams together and yours has taken longer than you wanted, it’s disappointing.

What it boils down to (to me) is that you’re encountering close up that great fear and dread that life is passing you without you getting what you want. But now I guess you do know exactly what you want, an adult home in which you are proud to welcome others, and a young, cool marriage. I don’t think it’s controlling to want those things or on a mental health spectrum to feel frustrated.

You can grieve for a bit about how things are working out and also decide what would get you these important things you want.

Plan a wedding for now, before you’re any older. Create a great celebration worthy of a love that has stayed strong despite the time it has taken to get to the party planning.
Keep looking for a home that is less cookie cutter. If you can’t find one, make a cookie cutter home unique to you. (The outside of my house sucks, yet when friends come inside it’s va va voom with my personality and aesthetic.)
posted by honey-barbara at 4:08 AM on April 22, 2021

Life is what happens while you were making other plans, for everyone. If you've held these rigid goals for yourself for so long, it's not surprising you feel terrible for missing them, but the reality is, they were never under your control in the first place. Sure, you could tilt the odds in your favour by dating a lot, being up front with the people you date what you're looking for. But you've never had total control over them. There will likely be more things like this in your life, because that's how life goes, so it would be worth looking into therapy both to find new ways of dealing with your current disappointments, and to examine any over-rigid plans you have for the future, and finding a way to approach them with more gentleness and lack of certainty (eg. goals for having children, career, future earnings etc).

Everybody you meet in life has things in their life that haven't gone the way they hoped, I think by the time we've gone a few years into adulthood, pretty much everyone has something big that's the 'thing' in their life, the sore point, the disappointment, the lack. For many of us, more than one. It's just that what that thing is, varies for everyone. Might be a significant other never met, or longed-for children never had. Financial security never gained; physical or mental good health never experienced. A parent, or sibling, who died too young. A good relationship with a parent never experienced. The pain comes when you compare yourself too directly with someone else, or with artificial goals you've set for yourself, and think "I didn't get thing x exactly as I wanted it, and some other people did, this is massive and significant and unique."

Those women you see who married older, or who never married? Some of them probably longed to be married by 30 too, or to be married at all. That friend who did marry by 30 and you find it hard to think about it? Maybe she has a terrible relationship with her mother that's been a lifelong sadness, or a health condition you know nothing about.

Calling yourself a 'non-functional loser' just for accumulating a pretty standard rota of life disappointments is very harsh on yourself, and very black and white thinking. I'd agree with others that it could well point to depression, or another mental health issue, which you deserve some help for, whether meds or therapy or both.
posted by penguin pie at 6:15 AM on April 22, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am an obsessive planner and have a really difficult time with deviations from the plan. My emotions get so overwhelming

I am very much like this (and have always been very much like this), and I think it is because I'm autistic (which I found out only a year ago, WTAF). For me, the obsessive planning is basically me using my well-developed coping mechanisms to prepare to deal with unfamiliar situations by thinking through all the details, so that I can avoid the emotional trauma of being blindsided by a situation I'm not prepared for. When there's a deviation from the plan, I'm suddenly in the situation where I have to do all that work over again??? While also trying to cope with my emotional response to an unexpected event??? Are you kidding me??? And yes, it is very much about being able to feel in control of the situation (which is not a bad thing! It is how I am able to cope with life in general!).

I sense that maybe there's an undercurrent in the two examples that you give: are you in some sense also worried about how you're going to explain these outcomes to other people, whether you're going to have to pretend that those things are what YOU wanted from the beginning, and that other people will judge you negatively for wanting/choosing those things, and/or for not being able to get the outcomes that you actually wanted?
posted by heatherlogan at 6:24 AM on April 22, 2021 [4 favorites]

I totally feel you on this because I plan all the time and can be devastated or really stressed when things don't go according to plan. I think there are a couple things that come into play.

We're constantly marketed these ideas of what our purchases and actions mean about us. Like buying a leather jacket at a vintage store becomes a matter of "Am I the type of person who wears a leather jacket?" and then you picture the life and style of people who do wear leather jackets and what it indicates about their personality. In this way it's easy to become enmeshed with your purchases and actions. The fact that you're not already married says nothing about you as a person, but rather just emphasizes the complex variety of human relationships that goes beyond how we view them when we're young.

Second, getting married and choosing a place to live are big changes, and it's really normal to feel like you're missing out on something, especially when social media makes us feel like the experience we have is less than "ideal" relative to what we expected for ourselves and what we see in those around us. Home hunting is super stressful because it always feels like a competition and so it's really important to remember that all homes have positives and negatives. I think the fact that you were able to pinpoint what you loved about the place you didn't get means you have a good eye for aesthetics and even a cookie cutter apartment could flourish with your style.

One thing that my significant other said to me on vacation years ago when I was stressed about not getting to all the things on my vacation list (yes, I had one) was "I worry that you're going to miss the forest for the trees." Since then I work hard to see the big picture, and it has really helped (now I only write vacation plans for half of each day!). You're in a loving relationship and y'all can get married however and whenever you both feel like it. You have a strong sense of what will work for you. And you have value as a person. There will always be things that shift the best laid plans, but know that there are always ways you can change and adjust those plans to make them work with the detours life throws at you. You've got this!
posted by donut_princess at 8:28 AM on April 22, 2021

Have you felt this way, and fixed it?

This is my life, yeah. And I haven't fixed it so much, it's a part of me after all, but I've found some ways to make it less upsetting. And it's been extra harder this year because I've really gotten wrapped up in my own life without so many random stimuli which has made more more hidebound about my own patterns (think "I usually have lunch before 1 and I'm having lunch at 1:20 and this is A MESS..." on days I'm not doing well)

So, a few things that have helped

- Therapy and meds. I have as-needed anxiety meds which I can use to sort of pop myself out of an anxiety spiral. I don't use them so much as knowing they are available helps me think through conflicts. Sometimes people have a drink or some other routine to help with this. You know yourself better but maybe there's a "snap out of it" thing you could do (face in cold water, run up and down stairs, that kind of thing)
- Acknowledging that it's absolutely okay to be disappointed when things don't go your way, that is an okay feeling to have. Spend some time honoring that disappointment, or however you want to put it, and try to put it away. The thing that is a little less helpful for you is taking that disappointed feeling out of the box and continuing to dwell on it. It's normal, we do it, but it's good if you can try to short circuit that. So like with your fiancee, I know it was a pain that they weren't ready, but try to put that away a little so it's not coloring all your time with your partner (or maybe it IS a big deal, and have a talk with them about it)
- And sometimes just naming the feeling "I'm just really bummed that I had lunch late and my whole day is out of wack" can help it lessen. You may be feeling that these feelings are not okay and that makes them fester more than just saying "Yeah I wish this were otherwise" and having someone be like "Yeah it's really hard when you think you've found the perfect apartment but someone else takes it" Because the things you are managing are stressful! So it's not a surprise that you're stressed!

In short, I can usually tell when I'm under a lot of stress when I'm having outsized reactions to normal stressors. Like, when I'm like "What am I DOING with my LIFE???" kind of anguish, it's really less of a commentary on my life and more of a commentary on my state of mind (could stand to be improved) and then I use my stress management tools (sleep, exercise, eat good food, whatever the thing is) and sure enough if my stress gets managed better, I feel like my life is less shitty. I wish you luck managing this, it really is hard.
posted by jessamyn at 9:22 AM on April 22, 2021 [2 favorites]

Best answer: sorry if this is the wrong track entirely--

have you ever had the practical freedom to yield entirely to the impulse that says Fuck this, if I can't have what I wanted, what I was counting on, what I built my plans around, what I HAD A RIGHT to, I don't want this worthless second choice offering at all? to knock over the table, kick over your desk, walk out on the job, literally or figuratively, whatever the thing was, and really, in a final way, choose Nothing instead of the-best-you-can-get?

maybe I am misreading you and that isn't really the impulse, or an impulse, that you have. & I am not trying to delicately say that you should choose No Husband over this future-husband, or No Home over imperfect-apartment. but if you have never been able to make that sometimes self-destructive but deeply, deeply satisfying rejection of the terms offered to you, the pressure can build and build. and then here, you have no choice, you have to pick the best of whatever terms are on offer, you can't just say No to all of it. so it sounds more like a prison of other people's decisions for your life than just a collection of setbacks.

the problematic attachment to the perfect is its own real thing & I don't mean to dismiss it. but it is easier to make the best of a bad substitute in one area of life when it isn't happening in multiple areas all at once, when you have other times & places where you do have full control and you do get exactly what you were promised. the only other solution I know is to decouple the pleasure of planning from the anticipated rewards of the completed plan.

or for a little temporary relief, cancel on someone else's carefully constructed plans, at the last moment possible. vicious, but possibly good for contemplation
posted by queenofbithynia at 1:27 PM on April 22, 2021 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Ehh sorry to go background-poking but you did happen to post a little while back about getting an ADHD diagnosis. Did you ever pursue a treatment plan for that? Because this describes my ADHD ex-partner to the last little detail. In their case this thought process even applied to rather small events in life, which I don't know if that applies to you. But they got a ton of relief once they found a good medication fit for their ADHD. It took awhile, but currently they are apartment-hunting and are in a mindset that, like, I don't even recognize in them. Just rolling right along with the punches.

Worth a thought, at least.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 7:52 PM on April 22, 2021 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Your situation resonates with me. You might find Maria Konnikova’s The Biggest Bluff interesting and/or helpful. She’s a psych PhD who learned to play poker professionally essentially to learn how to cope with uncertainty/when things don’t go according to plan.
posted by ferret branca at 4:33 PM on April 28, 2021

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