The government is closed for business, and the impact has quickly become personal for a lot of people. No pay, no parks, no museums, no monuments. It’s at moments like this that my Girl Scout training comes to mind: Be prepared.
There is perhaps nothing as stressful as having our best-laid plans turned upside down by events that are out of our control. This week it’s the couple whose wedding can’t take place at the Jefferson Memorial as planned, and the tourists who scheduled a big week in Washington only to find the museums and monuments closed, and the government workers who were hoping to pay bills and save for Christmas and will now lose pay for every day they don’t work.
But even when we don’t experience something as dramatic as a government shutdown, life throws us curve balls. Storms cancel our flights and take out our power; illness and injuries keep us from work and activities; friends let us down. Some say that managing stress is about managing expectations, as if by lowering our expectations and anticipating less, we won’t be disappointed. But being prepared doesn’t mean we should have to look forward to less; it means we need a plan B.
Having a plan B might mean building redundancy into systems, or bringing two power cords for your phone, or making backup dinner reservations, or applying to a safety school for college. Before we can solve a problem with a backup plan, however, we often need to change the story we’re telling about the situation. Herbert Benson and Eileen Stuart (in The Wellness Book) refer to this story as the “emotional hook”. The emotional hook consists of all your judgments, feelings and self-talk about the event – the shoulds, nevers, musts, oughts, and alwayses. “The government shouldn’t shut down. Why does this always happen to me? I’ll never be able to do this again.”
In order to effectively solve the problem and come up with a solution (the plan B), we need to get past the emotional hooks that are trapping us in the story. Taking some time to calm yourself, breathe and reflect puts you in a better place to counter the negative self-talk with positive statements and then choose how to respond. After that, you can look for possible solutions. For instance, The Washington Post is helping out this week by listing alternative destinations for all the major attractions that are closed, but if you haven’t gotten past the hooks, you might not see that help is there.
The more someone practices calming techniques and positive self-talk, the more it becomes second nature in times of stress. That takes us back to the Girl Scouts (of course). On the Girl Scouts web site, they explain their motto by quoting from the 1947 handbook: “A Girl Scout is ready to help out wherever she is needed. Willingness to serve is not enough; you must know how to do the job well, even in an emergency.”
In other words, being prepared isn’t just about equipment and supplies, or even intention; it’s about preparing yourself – being ready and able to deal with what life throws at you, both practically and emotionally. You can prepare yourself for those emotional hooks by checking your story on a regular basis. What’s bothering you today? What’s hard for you? Once you’ve answered that, think about what you’re telling yourself about it. Is there anger in your story? Self-pity? Sadness? If so, maybe it’s time for a re-write. Can you turn the story into something more positive by changing the words you are using about it?
Yeats said that “Life is a long preparation for something that never happens.” We always hope that the worst never happens, but a Girl Scout would say be prepared anyway.