Man Plans, and God Laughs
May 12, 2021 7:01 PM   Subscribe

I’ve always been a bit impulsive and fearful, yet somehow managed to struggle through and pull things off. I find that now when I try to intentionally make long term plans I feel a great deal of shame and fear. Can you help me work through this? (I am in therapy, but it feels very bite sized.)

I know, I know, the best laid plans, God laughs, etc. etc. I feel the moment I start to make plans, all these axioms start running through my head until I’m a nervous, mournful wreck, and I don’t enjoy the moments of my life. I just worry, painfully, about them.

I grew up in a rural, working class area, with parents who did not make much money (and still don’t). Their parents didn’t either. There was a lot of abuse running through the living generations of our family (luckily mostly emotional/verbal in my case, but not so for my siblings). The area itself (and being working class) wasn’t to blame, but it contributed to the sense of bleakness and lack of possibility. I knew I desperately wanted to leave and see the world but almost self-sabotaged by nearly getting married when I was 18 and attending the local commuter college my fiancé (a few years older than me) was attending. I had a brief flirtation with evangelical Christianity in my mid-teens that led me to some fairly obsessive behavior— I constantly read the Bible, attended every church service and Bible study I could because it was the only time I felt safe, pure, or OK, etc. It was a nasty anxiety and a constant worry that my family members wouldn’t be saved. I was so, so worried about them. I wanted some kind of existential peace, I think— that they’d ultimately be OK, no matter what I did.

After breaking things off, I had a few relationships with men much much older than me. I think on some level I was hoping one of them could save me, because my peers could not. One of them sort of did—they encouraged me to seek more academically and I transferred to a better school. While I was there I almost dropped out several times but always came around at the last second. My performance was great in my major, because I loved it and I think I could drop fully into it as a form of escape— but I was terrible in everything else. Simply didn’t do the work. I still felt a sense of impending doom, like focusing on things like “finishing this paper” or “studying for finals” was a terrible, sinful (not literally anymore) waste of time and any moment I didn’t spend thinking about my loved ones meant taking my eye off of them and finding out something terrible had happened. And of course, that terrible thing would happen while I was off selfishly trying to get good grades at school, rendering my vanity unforgivable.

All this is to say that I wasn’t a very forward-looking person. Thinking about my own future felt like a sin against God (again, not literally). I was constantly bouncing between hedonism and the terrible emotional pain of thinking I was irredeemable. I’ve recovered somewhat from that self-belief, but not completely.

I’m now at the point in my life where I’ve accomplished a lot of things I never thought I would. I graduated, got a Masters degree, got a good job, paid off all my credit card debt from my 20s when I thought shopping could stop the bad feelings and fill me up inside (after all, I was never able to buy books and nice clothes as a kid, maybe that’s what I was missing? Didn’t really matter if it worked, it felt good for awhile). I’m about ready to turn the corner and start saving for real— in fact, I have some savings now, and I’m on track to get to a really good place where I’ll no longer feel like a criminal and a debt slave and will have a bit more lightness about my circumstances. (Of course, I fear that tipping point may never really come— materially or psychologically— but I have a bit of faith that I’ll find the way.)

But I recently got a job offer— not a great one, just an offer—that would allow me to move closer to my family. I’ve spent the last 3 weeks having flashbacks to all the things I’ve written above. Part of me wants to go, because I desperately feel I should be close to them and that if I’m not, something terrible will happen. And part of me thinks I still have some things to accomplish where I am. I keep telling myself, “you can turn this job offer down, finish up what you’re doing here in the next couple years, then decide to go home when it feels right.” But I have an extremely powerful sense that I can’t— that I’m fooling myself. That God will laugh. That if I don’t do it now, something terrible will happen. And I know something terrible could happen. In fact, not only did we all just live through a year+ of pandemic that kept me from seeing any of them, but right beforehand my father had a stroke and cancer (he’s doing OK now). I took about a month away from work to be with him in the hospital, and missed everyone so much. I was with him more than any of my siblings who actually live in the area, and with him so much that I think he actually wanted me to leave him alone, at times.

I realized I have a very skewed idea of what “together” means. Even within my family, I’m always the one who wants more, feels the need to keep everyone safe, always keep emotionally connected, etc. And I don’t feel that back from them at times, which keeps the anxiety going. And it’s so hard for me to pass the marshmallow test— it’s a real torrid thing. I always want to eat the stale marshmallow, do the wrong thing, drop out, quit my job, etc. I frequently think it’s a miracle that I’ve gotten as far as I have, and can take care of myself. And I think I worry a lot about money and savings precisely because I know how bad things can get when I’m at my lowest lows, and I’m trying to insulate myself from that.

This is a long question in the form of a confessional essay, but the real kernel of it is: how do you unlearn the sense that everything is always going to wrong? And if you can, is it even wise to do so? I feel like whenever I try to let go of the anxiety, the universe (or COVID, etc.) reminds me that it’s there for a reason. And I shouldn’t relax. I should always be scared, and worried, and looking for the next thing. That sticking with something slow and steady is for idiots, because I’m an idiot who thinks everything will be OK, and how dare I? Don’t I realize God hates me? Don’t I realize we’re born into trouble, as the sparks fly upward?

In other words, the “wisdom literature” section of my brain is on fire, and I don’t know how look away. The only time I feel safe or at peace (now that I no longer have church or Bible study) is when I’m actually physically present with my family, thus the urgency. Yet, I have a feeling that once I actually move closer to them, the togetherness will diminish— because it’s not a special event anymore, there will be diminishing returns— and I’ll be reduced to a needy wreck, the same as I was growing up when I knew I wanted to leave. Knowing that visiting frequently might be hard— or not?— because of ongoing COVID really puts me in a panic. Somehow, I haven’t blown thousands of dollars moving around the country and risking my/their lives to make sure I see their faces. Then I hear seemingly well adjusted people say that they’ve blown thousands of dollars moving around the country, risking their lives to make sure they see their loved ones faces. And I think, maybe I’m just cold now, maybe they’re right, maybe the voice that’s always telling me to RUN is worth listening to.

As you can see, I have a hard time untangling any of this. So, my embarrassingly childlike question at the end of this is... can plans work out? Have your plans worked out? Do you trust that your plans will work out, and quote wisdom literature after things go wrong, rather than using it to sabotage them in advance? I suspect that people do, but the physics of it don’t quite make sense to me yet. Is it OK to stay apart for a few years to save some money? Is it OK to believe that my 30s will proceed normally, even if they don’t? If I end up with cancer or menopause before I’m able to have kids, will I be able to tolerate the world saying “I told you so,” etc.?

Thanks for reading. These feelings run really deep, I fear I can’t actually do anything about them most of the time.
posted by stoneandstar to Human Relations (16 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
 
I know plenty of people (myself included) who made big plans that didn't work out in practice the way they thought they would. Most of them aren't unhappy about that, in practice, though. In fact, some of them ended up in more favorable situations than they expected to. Circumstances change and you adapt! Not following the plan strictly doesn't mean you failed, it just means stuff happened. (I will note that I made fewer big plans than many peers, in part because I don't come from a family of planners. I haven't been as successful as some other people who rolled with the punches, but I've noticed I was less unhappy about the punches at the time, for whatever that's worth).

That said, "I will look for opportunities to be closer to family in [x] years" seems like a goal that is not strictly conditioned on a bunch of intermediate steps happening. Like, there are a lot of ways you could achieve that. This is not the only job that will ever be in that region, so if you want to stay where you are for now, rock on.

Also: some of this stuff with your family sounds a little bit .. I'm not sure of a good term, but that doesn't sound super healthy to me. I am not a therapist, but maybe that's a thing to talk about with your therapist?
posted by Alterscape at 7:20 PM on May 12, 2021 [1 favorite]


Response by poster: Totally agreed that it’s not healthy— I didn’t want to dwell on it too much but I think that’s part of why I feel staying and trying to figure out these issues before making a big “sacrificial” move was the right thing. I am working on family issues a lot in therapy but it’s slow going.

I get the sense others can tell it’s unhealthy and I can’t see what they see, but I also know I’m not exactly at peace. So I know there’s something there. (Just wanted to say so in case that helps other commenters.)
posted by stoneandstar at 7:45 PM on May 12, 2021


IANAD, IANYD. It sounds to me like you might have OCD. The fear of something terrible happening is a clue. I know you're in therapy, but have you asked about this or sought specialty treatment for it? (P.S. Definitely don't take the job close to home. Stay put and thank me later. )
posted by shadygrove at 8:08 PM on May 12, 2021 [7 favorites]


Best answer: And yes. Lots of plans work out all the time. Your own plans have already worked out, most of 'em. Mine too. Are there bumps in the road? Yes. Unexpected detours? Yes. Does everything take more time, money, and energy than anticipated? Mostly yes. But it's ok to make plans. Many of them will work out just fine.
posted by shadygrove at 8:18 PM on May 12, 2021 [2 favorites]


Best answer: For dealing with anxiety loops, I highly recommend Unwinding Anxiety by Jud Brewer (discussed on the Blue).

By assuming that you can prevent terrible things from happening to your family by moving closer to them - that's kind of an attempt to predict the future, isn't it? Maybe a storm will wreck your family's house - but they can stay with you because you didn't move and your place was so far away it didn't get hit. Maybe a relative will lose their job - but a new friend you meet next year in your current city will have an in on your relative's dream company. Or a million other things that could happen which are impossible to foresee. Taking this particular job to avert a vaguely possible disaster is also a plan that God will laugh at.

And I think, maybe I’m just cold now...
This internet stranger forgives you for not wanting to blow thousands of dollars while risking your life just to spend time with people who previously abused you and your siblings.

... I’ll be reduced to a needy wreck, the same as I was growing up when I knew I wanted to leave.
I agree, this will probably happen. My parents weren't abusive, but I find myself turning into a child when I spend too much time with them, and I don't think this is unusual for many adults. First and foremost, you should protect your mental health for your own sake, but if it helps to think of it this way - your family would be happiest to spend time with the best version of you, too. And maybe, in order to become the best version of yourself, you need to spend time apart from them.
posted by airmail at 8:41 PM on May 12, 2021 [12 favorites]


There is a thing I call the Inevitable Awful Thing.
The thing is awful, and contemplating its awfulness does little to mitigate it.
Contemplating its inevitability may drive you to a place beyond fear, but the journey there is perilous and you may find the destination not to your liking.

As an atheist, I assure you that you cannot escape God, no matter how hard you try.
If God is omnipotent, omniscient, and immanent (and if God isn't those things, what does it mean?) then God is everything everywhere that ever was, including you.

If you have felt the warmth of the Laughing Light within you, if you have ever seen the face of God... that's a trick of electricity in your meat-brain. It's a trick you can learn to repeat at will, one that can take you to a place beyond fear.

The journey to the place beyond fear is a fearful one, as it must be. It's also a place beyond safety, which isn't real anyway.

I told you all that to tell you this: your fears are real. Nothing is going back to "normal". The pandemic is not going away any time soon. The economy is going to get worse, and people are going to act badly. It's hard not to worry, but worrying makes things worse, not better.

I've been plagued with crippling anxiety for many years. I learned to work within it and push it aside because of situations in which, if I hadn't done so, I would have died.
Your "wisdom literature" is notes on an experience, and not the experience itself. Until you have had the experience, you will not receive the wisdom. When you have had, the literature will resonate for you in ways it does not now.

None of this is easy. To live beyond fear is not to escape it.

May your road be easier for you than mine has been for me.

I'm here for those who would talk with a ghost of such things
posted by Rev. Irreverent Revenant at 12:32 AM on May 13, 2021 [4 favorites]


how do you unlearn the sense that everything is always going to wrong?

Anxiety medication.
posted by penguin pie at 2:49 AM on May 13, 2021 [3 favorites]


Best answer: IANYT, but I am a therapist in training, and I'm reading a lot about trauma response right now.

It sounds like you had a childhood which would definitely, by a therapist/psychiatrist/reasonable person, be deemed traumatic. You may well be tempted to downplay it, but verbal abuse, physical abuse, witnessing the physical abuse of others, parents who are inconsistent in some way, worrying about money or being aware of money troubles while being too young to be able to do anything about it - all that is trauma. You may or may not need to hear that confirmed by an internet stranger.

What trauma in childhood does to us is complex (you could read "The Body Keeps The Score" if you want to get into the science of it).

The manifestation of it that I read in your post, is that you were put into "fight or flight mode" in childhood and have never left it. I can explain this a bit more if you like, but the short version is, your nervous system is over-active, hence your feelings of anxiety and overwhelm over decisions in your life.

You also say a lot of things which give away a degree of self-hatred (again I can point out examples if you like from your post), which suggests you might blame yourself for the abuse, and subsequently for others' unhappiness or behaviour - this is a common coping strategy in kids.

If your therapy isn't helping much with this, try a different therapist, or a different approach with your therapist. Therapists LIKE being told what is or isn't working. They will "re-contract" with you to set a new goal, with a new path. I would suggest some deep narrative work, mapping out your life and seeing where the stories are that have been created about and around your sense of self. You might also benefit from some kind of trauma therapy, such as EMDR (I've done this personally for Post-Natal PTSD and it was life-changing).

You might feel like I'm not really answering your actual questions with this answer, so let me try and do that with the above as context.

So, my embarrassingly childlike question at the end of this is... can plans work out?

First of all, it's ok to be in the child part of your ego sometimes. I'm talking to that part now when I say, you are safe. Tell yourself that out loud now. And then, consider this: whether or not plans "work out" is so much less to do with the actual circumstances, and so much more to do with our perspective, and how we feel about the potential outcomes.

Have your plans worked out? Do you trust that your plans will work out, and quote wisdom literature after things go wrong, rather than using it to sabotage them in advance?

I don't fully understand this part, but if we make plans and they don't turn out as you expected, then that is how we learn.

Is it OK to stay apart for a few years to save some money?

It is ok. To the child part of your brain: it is ok, and you are allowed to make the decision on this that you know is right for you, and you alone. To the adult part: it is also ok to ignore all of this advice. You've got this.

Is it OK to believe that my 30s will proceed normally, even if they don’t?

What is normal? Make your own normal, make it so that it fits, and works for you. Don't use anyone else's definition of it.

If I end up with cancer or menopause before I’m able to have kids, will I be able to tolerate the world saying “I told you so,” etc.?

On a sensible note: yes. Life is full of dramatic ups and tragic times. You can make yourself strong, resilient, and the best version of you. You can take life on, whatever it turns out to be. You can enjoy the best bits, and weather the blows.

On a less sensible note: fuck literally anyone who says I told you so if you get sick or have bad luck! Don't allow people like that any real estate in your head!
posted by greenish at 3:32 AM on May 13, 2021 [5 favorites]


Best answer: "Wisdom literature", or superstition literature? Is it functioning as a life preserver or a rock in the ocean of your life?

How do you feel about refocusing on other axioms that would serve you better?
posted by dancing leaves at 5:58 AM on May 13, 2021 [1 favorite]


Best answer: You are good enough, all on your own. Your family withheld what you needed as a kid, but that doesn’t mean you need to, or can, get that from them now.

>So, my embarrassingly childlike question at the end of this is... can plans work out? Have your plans worked out?

They can, but the endpoint looking different than you thought doesn’t mean failure. I am not the high school teacher I thought I’d be as a kid. Turned out I found a different door along the way, and I like what I do a lot. But my life is better than my childhood self was able to imagine.

Bad things will happen if you don’t go home. Bad things will also happen if you do. They might be the same bad things either way. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with deciding that family is important and to make long-term life decisions based on that value, but I don’t think making choices out of short-term fear will help you, especially since the you that lived there and experienced abuse wanted to leave.
posted by tchemgrrl at 6:14 AM on May 13, 2021 [3 favorites]


Best answer: can plans work out? Have your plans worked out? Do you trust that your plans will work out, and quote wisdom literature after things go wrong, rather than using it to sabotage them in advance?

Sometimes plans work out. Sometimes not. It depends! But being responsible for taking charge of your plans means putting those old familiar feelings of shame and fear and anxiety aside, and acting as if you have agency and can withstand the inevitable problems which will arise in the process. That's...kind of scary, especially when the voices of doubt (actual and those of memory) are so strong.

Seconding reading The Body Keeps The Score; this interview with the author will give you an idea of what the book is about. Hypervigilance is exhausting. I will recommend Tove Jansson's short story "The Fillyjonk Who Believed In Disasters" because it's a helpful reminder that you're not alone in your worries, that disasters do happen, and that we can withstand both the events and the anticipatory anxiety about them. Look at what you've already done! That's pretty good proof that you can have agency and get through things!

Yet, I have a feeling that once I actually move closer to them, the togetherness will diminish— because it’s not a special event anymore, there will be diminishing returns— and I’ll be reduced to a needy wreck, the same as I was growing up when I knew I wanted to leave.

Yeah. Don't go back to Rockville. Move forward, not back. You can do this!
posted by MonkeyToes at 7:06 AM on May 13, 2021 [2 favorites]


This all sounds like a lot of survivor's guilt type feelings - which is maybe just another way of saying what greenish said about trauma, but maybe a little bit different, too? Some possibly helpful reading might include the following works that also (as one of the reviews for the first link puts it) "speak to the traumas inherent in the experience of upward mobility.": "This Fine Place So Far From Home", "Strangers in Paradise", "Trash" (and probably also "Two or Three Things I Know for Sure" and "Skin: Talking About Sex, Class and Literature"? I haven't read those two yet, myself) by Dorothy Allison (interview: "Tender to the Bone"), "Class Matters" possibly also "Belonging: A Culture of Place"? Definitely supplement any of these other options with "All About Love", on the off chance that you haven't read it yet, plus some Brene Brown) by bell hooks. Slightly less on topic, but you may also enjoy or find voice in Jeannette Winterson's autobiography "Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?" (title comes from something her mother once said to her). (And farther afield, recommended more for her personal/family story, you might also look into Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz?)

Back to your actual questions:

can plans work out? Have your plans worked out?

Yes. Some of my plans have worked out as planned. Some of my plans have worked out in the sense of having a positive outcome, though not the one I originally anticipated or expected. Some of my plans haven't worked out. I'd be happy to say more over mefi mail if specific stories would be helpful. I, too, come from a working class family, though I was fortunate to have a stable and supportive home growing up (it's amazing what relative privilege that confers :/).

Do you trust that your plans will work out, and quote wisdom literature after things go wrong, rather than using it to sabotage them in advance?

I don't consider such literature at any point? I try to learn what I can from things that haven't worked out, but otherwise not dwell on it. Knowing what I can control and what are factors beyond my control has been exceedingly helpful, especially in the second case of adjusting to changing circumstances so that my plans work out albeit not in the form I originally envisioned. In one of the earlier such major plan disruptions I've experienced, I was discussing this issue of plans not working out as anticipated with a former classmate, and we were talking about changes in ourselves alongside changes in our plans, noting that in many ways we felt that we hadn't changed so much as refined - that major plan disruptions can potentially have the affect of peeling you down to your core values and wants or goals in life, which can be a painful process but also a strengthening one (depending on circumstances, it should be noted). John Steinbeck's "Travels with Charley" gave me a helpful perspective on this, too. A quote from this book kind of sums up my approach to life:
In Spanish there is a word for which I can't find a counterword in English. It is the verb vacilar, present participle vacilando. It does not mean vacillating at all. If one is vacilando, he is going somewhere but doesn't greatly care whether on not he gets there, although he has direction. My friend Jack Wagner has often, in Mexico, assumed this state of being. Let us say we wanted to walk in the streets of Mexico City but not at random. We would choose some article almost certain not to exist there and then diligently try to find it.
For myself, I am a plan-maker. I feel most comfortable having a plan. But the point is to have a direction and purpose or motivation, not so much to actually achieve the plan, if that makes sense?

Is it OK to stay apart for a few years to save some money?

Yes, absolutely. My mother is not on Metafilter, but she would be a better person to speak to this than me - we were in some ways the black sheep branch of her otherwise fairly closely knit family, in that she was the only one of her siblings to move far away. She has had a lot of internal conflict and struggle with that at times, and did at one point take a less prestigious job in order to move back closer to family (though my parents had other reasons for that move, as well). But she had established herself reasonably well in her career and (even more importantly, I think) in her own independent personhood (yup, this did involve some therapy, though also lots of self-study and -reflection) first, which has made a significant difference in what sort of help she was able to provide, and has enabled her to provide that help in ways that weren't self-destructive for her. Those choices were significantly positive for everyone else in my mother's life too (her nuclear family unit including myself, her close friends, and her communities (since she's always been fairly active in feminist and social justice community activism)).

Is it OK to believe that my 30s will proceed normally, even if they don’t?

Sure, but why be normal when you could be happy?posted by eviemath at 7:27 AM on May 13, 2021 [1 favorite]


how do you unlearn the sense that everything is always going to wrong?
can plans work out? Have your plans worked out? Do you trust that your plans will work out


I know from personal experience that breaking out of anxiety-based/ fear-based living is HARD - but very possible and even, I believe, a natural progression for humans. It's a trick, but start letting go/ breaking out of the idea that things are 'wrong' or 'right' or 'should' be a certain way that you want- you frankly don't know how things will ultimately play out and its egotistical to believe so. (i.e. a job loss could lead to a better job etc.) You can only do what you can do- and you have to leave it at that.

It's also egotistical to think you are the 'savior' of your family. In fact, being a stable/solid/at-peace person might actually benefit your family more somehow.

What you can do is set an intention that feels right to your gut, maybe backed by some knowledge or other input, and slowly apply energy to make it happen... but being open enough to know it might not turn out the way you want... or the way you THINK it should go. You don't have that much control. Emphasize your own state of being, rather than focusing on projected outcomes.

Also, you mentioned God quite a bit.. so I'll say this: look around at the Natural World for 'blueprints'. For example, 'water' finds a way to its destination, trees grow slowly but steadily despite weather, animal behavior isn't 'right or wrong'.. it just is. For me, spending regular time in nature and breathing deeply quells anxiety, fosters inspiration, and gets me in touch with my deeper self.
posted by mrmarley at 7:40 AM on May 13, 2021 [2 favorites]


Best answer: ...can plans work out? Have your plans worked out? Do you trust that your plans will work out, and quote wisdom literature after things go wrong, rather than using it to sabotage them in advance? I suspect that people do, but the physics of it don’t quite make sense to me yet. Is it OK to stay apart for a few years to save some money? Is it OK to believe that my 30s will proceed normally, even if they don’t?

There is a tremendous amount of good advice so far, and let me echo the voices above recommending that you bring this up in therapy. Let me try to respond as a religious believer, though not from the reformed tradition you've described.

Of course plans can work out, though they may need adjustments based on circumstances or state in life. So nearer-term plans can be a little more concrete and longer-term stuff (5-10 years out, say) gets a lot more vague and fuzzy, because who knows? I have a plan to pay off bill X in 18 months. Where do I see myself in five to ten years? I have a general idea, but that's about it for now. The actions I take now in pursuit of that plan are more like occasional paddle stokes as a canoe moves downstream, tending to keep to the middle of the water.

What I trust in - with varying success to be sure - is that hour by hour, if my will is as close to God's as I can make it, then I will be where I need to be and that will suffice. And what is His will? That I be a little Christ in everything I do, to everyone I meet, and that they be seen as a little Christ to me in return.

Here is the Big But: this comes at a time well past the trauma in my own life and an extended period of healing and resetting. It looks like you are on that pathway now! It is good that you are there! It may be slow work. This is also OK.

You are loved and necessary. Maintain distance and other boundaries for your health's sake. Live your adult life. Save that money. You can do it!
posted by jquinby at 8:09 AM on May 13, 2021 [5 favorites]




Best answer: I thought of this question when I came across these lines (flipped in order, for the purposes of this answer) in Philippa Perry's "How to Stay Sane": "If we practice more optimism, disasters will still happen--but predicting disasters does not make them more tolerable, or ward them off. The trick is to increase your tolerance for vulnerable feelings, rather than avoid them altogether."
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:08 AM on May 15, 2021 [4 favorites]


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