Last Christmas my client, Laura, shared how she bakes bountiful amounts of holiday cookies for co-workers, friends, and family. She meticulously plans her grocery store shopping list by combining the list of ingredients she needs for each recipe together, and then making one huge shopping trip. The list might take her two or three hours to get together over two or three days.
Inevitably during the shopping trip, Laura forgets an ingredient that she had failed to add to her list. Usually it is not one of the big items such as flour or sugar. It’s the unique item like candied ginger or mint extract that fails reach the basket. The pain on her face as she told me her mistake making and forgetfulness was heartbreaking.
Laura prides herself on her excellent organizational skills and when things don’t go as expected, she said that she sometimes cries or even throws a bowl across the kitchen. She said that feels like the whole experience of cooking is a waste of time, if she can’t make the recipe right.
Too Much Planning and List-Making
Many over-controlled leaning individuals tend to spend more time planning an event, than enjoying it. The goal-oriented behavior of getting everything down perfectly on the list can actually activate reward pathways in the brain. Then when something doesn’t happen the way it’s been planned, the over-controlled person may want to give up on an activity because it didn’t go perfectly.
My guess is that most people’s planning behaviors are not just limited to one situation like cookies. Laura also over-planned school lunches, family trips, and conversations with her husband. She said that she rehearsed some of these activities so frequently in her head, that she became overwhelmed and felt like she needed a nap. Ruminating and over-planning are unfortunate bedfellows.
Stop Over-Planning and Start Enjoying
As a Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy (RODBT) therapist, I suggested that one way to stop the over-planning cycle is to first become aware of it, and then make a silly label for it. Over-controlled individuals don’t need to become more serious, they need to lighten up! Giving the behavior a funny name like “cookie planning meltdown-ing” or “ingredient killjoy queen” is a great way to remind ourselves not to take things so seriously. When you label behaviors with a sense of humor, you can soften to them. They become like old, annoying friends, rather than hated relatives.
Once we see the behavior clearly, we can make a choice to change it. We don’t have to be controlled by the planning anymore. Even the smallest change, like pausing to label the behavior, can be helpful. My client Laura decided that every time she found herself being a “list curmudgeon” she would do a little silly wiggle dance to allow herself to get some distance from the behavior and loosen up. Now she is able to decide if she wants to continue the list-making with a kinder attitude or if she needed to give herself a break.