Control and Planning

April 4, 2014

I am engrossed in planning my upcoming trip to Europe; I notice how much I enjoy the process. Sometimes I think I enjoy the preparation more than the actual experience. Then to my amusement I realize this is another face of my need to control. Planning is a way I avoid anxiety; it diminishes risk; it is yet another way I confront the powerful other.

Eminent Jungian psychologist James Hollis, author of Hauntings among his many books, describes control as a way at an early age we try and gain power over our environment. He suggests the birth of a power complex is a way we cope with feeling powerless in a powerful world and leads to the need to take control. This power complex can assume some relatively positive guises – education as an example. I realize planning is an extension of my need to control.

The ability to plan and strategize was a key aspect of my becoming successful in the business world. It certainly is effective to minimize unexpected challenges when I travel. However when I saw the clear relationship between planning and my need to control, I began to reflect on what perhaps were the downsides.

Suddenly I have clarity on why I feel so upset when plans go wrong and why I plan so carefully to avoid the eventuality of mishap. Because my planning is directly linked to a child’s need to control, when plans go awry I tend to slip into the overwhelmed reaction of a child not an adult. Momentarily I lose my ability to problem solve as an adult. My family refers to it as the “Simpson Spin”, a spiraling out of control that impedes finding a solution.

Ghost RanchHowever over-planning can eliminate spontaneity and risk missing out on those magical unexpected moments that arise when there is no plan or plans have to change. For example on a road trip last October the US National Park system shut down decimating my planned holiday in the South-West. Yet once I got over my childish pique and looked for alternatives, I discovered the amazing Ghost Ranch in New Mexico, which became the high point of my whole trip.

My reflection assumes a greater significance as I make a decision to challenge my comfort zone and subject myself to unnecessary anxiety. I am taking a train to Holyhead in North Wales then catching a ferry to Ireland the next day. I am about to book accommodation and the ferry but I pause. The train should arrive forty-minutes before the ferry leaves so I could make it to Dublin the same day. This would maximize the time I can spend in Ireland however it is by no means guaranteed. I can feel the anxiety about the train being late and of having nowhere to stay.

However I think it is time to face my fears. Hollis suggests that anxiety is a child state and that we need to convert it into a fear that can be managed. What is the worst that can happen – I spend the night in the ferry terminal? I think I can live with that.