#57: Impulse control

#57: Impulse control

This week I share about acknowledging grief, delaying action, and making plans with a friend.

These weekly updates share life with OCD as part of my Mental Work Health project to reduce stigma around mental health, especially at work.


Something hard

For a few months, my wife and I had been planning a trip this past weekend. It was our wedding anniversary, and we had been looking forward to some time away from the kids. As the time grew closer, we started trying to figure out what to do with the children.

As any parent knows, trying to do anything with kids is orders of magnitude harder. And with seven kids, we have found arranging any time away to be next to impossible.

Our plan was to split the kids up between a few different houses. Two here, two there, one over there, and two somewhere else. It was a good plan.

But as we started trying to make the arrangements, we found that the family we were planning to ask to help with the kids already had plans. Improbably, both of my wife’s sisters were gone that same weekend on different trips.

As we looked at our upcoming schedule, we realized it would be almost another month before the opportunity would come up again. Between work responsibilities and weekend commitments, we were packed.

Now, there is nothing magical about the actual date of the anniversary. Spending time together is more important. But try telling that to OCD. I have always had an issue not celebrating something on the actual day of the event. I have gotten better.

But it’s still hard.

As the weekend approached when we had planned to go, I started to feel more and more distress. At first, it seemed inexplicable to me. When I met with my therapist the Friday before, I told her that I was feeling a roiling ball of anxiety, but didn’t really know why. As we talked, I realized that I was grieving.

Grief is one of those emotions and experiences that can be hard to allow ourselves to fully process. It is easy to explain to ourselves why our grief is insignificant. There are so many people that have worse experiences, and so we shouldn’t feel bad.

We even tell those things to other people sometimes. “Well, at least it’s not…” “It could have been much worse…”

While true in some ways, that kind of invalidation almost never helps. What does help is acknowledging the difficult emotion. When we allow ourselves to fully experience what we are feeling, we make possible the healing process.

Something good

At the beginning of last week, I was annoyed. Someone at work had made a decision that I didn’t completely agree with. And more annoying, it was about something that we had previously discussed. I was a little hurt that the decision was made without me, and exacerbated by my concerns with the choice made.

Part of my OCD is a struggle with impulse control. This may be a general trait of many mental health challenges, but I can only speak directly to my own experience. My flavor of OCD, scrupulosity, is almost all mental. My compulsions are thoughts that I have to wrestle with. Mentally, this is exhausting, and my ability to resist depletes quickly.

In the past, the implication of poor impulse control was immediate action. If I felt annoyance at something that happened at work, I often jumped right in to try to fix the situation. I would voice my frustration before processing it, or even before I completely understood it.

Essentially, I would deflect the distress onto someone else.

When I realized that I was annoyed last week, I stopped. Acknowledging the emotion is the first step, and I am now able to separate that from my action. I decided to just sit with it for a couple days.

After a couple days, I was still annoyed. So I decided to do some journaling and introspection to explore my emotions.

One of my favorite blogs and podcasts is The Art of Manliness. Recently there was a discussion and post about introspection. Doing it poorly can make things worse. The key is to focus on what and not on why. Often, we spend time asking ourselves questions like: “Why me?” “Why did this happen?” “Why aren’t I more respected to be included?” Better is to explore what actually happened.

In the moment, that advice came to mind, and I tried to describe the events that led to my negative emotions. I realized that I had not been clear about my expectations. When the decision was made without me, there was no wrong committed. I wasn’t being slighted. While my frustration was valid, as all emotions are valid, it wasn’t completely justified. The annoyance melted away.

However, I did identify an actual issue to be solved. I needed to make sure that I was on the same page with the person who had made the decision. I might have misunderstood my role and expectations of me. I needed clarity so that I could succeed in the future, and contribute meaningfully to the efforts of our team.

I had a call with that individual, and was able to approach it with almost no emotion. No longer did I need my feelings to be mollified—I just needed information. It turned out that my expectations and understanding were correct. But the situation that came up required expediency that I wasn’t available for. We worked out a plan for the future that seemed appropriate to both of us.

When I hung up, I felt fantastic. Most importantly, we had worked through an important issue. Additionally, I was hit immediately with satisfaction at my handling of the situation. This was so much better than in the past, and it felt great.

Something else

My last thought is a bit of a teaser.

I had a call last week with Mike Rohde, which is always a treat. We have chatted occasionally over the past 10 years or so, and I have often been a little intimidated. He coined the term sketchnotes, and literally wrote the book on sketchnoting (with a great followup workbook). The first time I talked with him was something of a “meet your hero” experience.

Over the years, we have become friends. He’s one of my last remaining digital-only friends. I look forward to meeting in person at some point.

This summer, he interviewed me for the excellent Sketchnote Army podcast (the episode is not out yet), and we struck up a conversation after the interview. That led to a joint project that we are starting. We’re not ready to share details yet, but it’s getting close.

I was reminded of the lesson I relearned a couple weeks ago. Connecting with friends is a huge boost to my mental wellbeing.

Wrap up

Sitting with emotions continues to be a difficult and important lesson to learn. And relearn. And relearn. It is empowering when we can identify an emotion, experience it fully, and then choose to act with that additional information. As we work on that skill, compassion is so important. Be kind to yourself. And to everyone around you. They might be trying the same thing as well.