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The importance of making plans (even when you don’t stick to them)

Many books, courses and articles teach us how we can set goals and how we can stick to them. In fact, I have published a post recently in which I share my favourite way of setting goals. The main reasons we make plans is to gain a sense of control over our future. Yet I wholeheartedly agree that life happens when you are busy making other plans. Looking back on all the plans and goals I have made in my life I suspect only a handful have come true. And my life at the moment is without a doubt completely different than I could have ever planned a few years ago. That is why I think it is so important to stay flexible and adjust plans.  To not get stuck on one vision of how our life should pan out. Even if our sense of control is completely illusory and despite life often not going according to plan, I still believe making plans can help us (at least the worrying type among us) in various ways.

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A lesson in surrender (November in a nutshell)

Surrender. Breathe. Repeat. Lately this has become my life motto. For weeks the new house wasn’t a home. The old house wasn’t a home either anymore. 6.30 A.M. I would wake up in the old house. I kept a few possessions there and would get ready for work. 5.15 P.M. I would make my way to the new house from work. I would tare out carpets, scrub wooden floors until my hands were raw and painted the puke coloured walls with a less repulsive shade. The new house was a tumbly mess of boxes and contents and old furniture and new furniture. The old house was an eerily empty space stripped down to the bare necessities. (Note to self: abandon mission minimalism.) The absence of just one place I could call home was lesson number one in surrender.

Lesson number 2

We have finally moved into the new house. We have given the keys of the old house back to our former landlord and neatly arranged our dishes and glasses in the kitchen cabinets of the new house. Some of the boxes are unpacked. The floors are clean. Most of the walls are white. And the pungent smell that had been left behind by the previous owner has faded into the background. But there is still a lot to do before I feel at ease in this unfamiliar place. The bathroom and kitchen have not been modernised since the 70s. (Do I need to say more.) The front door has a cat flap and with my cat allergies, the chances of us ever getting a cat are zero. We are only halfway there. Having my things tucked away in the shelves that the space provides has made it feel more like home. I can carry out my usual routines. I just have to carry them out in a less than perfect house. That is lesson number two in surrender.

Jumping ship

I write this as if it was a simple of matter accepting the situation. For some it might be, but for me these lessons in surrender were brutal. Anxiety was running through my veins as I navigated the uncertainty that engulfed the weeks gone. Surrender wasn’t a peaceful act of compliance for me. I struggled and resisted. And I schemed my escape more than once. That is what anxiety makes me do. I have moved countries, broken of relationships and abandoned university degrees because of my anxiety. When a situation becomes too dire, I jump ship. But when you’re chin-deep into a relationship and you just bought a house together, you cannot simply jump ship. When love is on the table, you have to defy the impulse to jump ship.


So life beckoned me on my knees. I could sputter and moan all I wanted. There was no fleeing the situation. Not this time. When my skin felt like it was burning from the inside out, I had to sit with it. When my head was spinning a million miles an hour on top of my exhausted body, I had to sit with it. Face the anxiety head-on. With the world’s most ungraceful (and at times ungrateful) attitude, I caved in and surrendered.

There was no enlightenment. No peaceful feeling or deeper understanding. It was just a matter of putting on foot in front of the other. An act I have performed many times when anxiety came for a visit. Action is the antidote to despair. What was different this time is that I eventually let go of struggling with the struggle. I was no longer anxious about being anxious. The struggle was there, but the meta-struggle disappeared. No peace, but less distress. A simple three-step plan. Surrender. Breathe. Repeat.

How was November for you?

The messiness of human emotion

I was thinking about emotions the other day. Quite randomly, I pondered these feelings (turns out they are not really feelings) and their use to us. Today I want to share my thoughts. Let’s start at the beginning. There are six basic emotions – happiness, sadness, disgust, fear, surprise and anger. Beyond these, researchers have identified at least 21 additional distinctive emotions that can be derived from the primal six emotions. This made me wonder. What is the evolutionary purpose of emotions? Why do we feel? A quick Google search provided some insights.

Animals feel

Emotions are not distinctively human. (In fact, it is said that the only two distinctive features of humans are that we cook food and are intensely evil. Ouch.) Emotions, on the other hand, can be found throughout the animal kingdom, particularly in mammals. This tells us there is some evolutionary purpose behind it. They must trigger some survival mechanism in the brain that allows us to control our interactions with the environment.

Coping mechanism

Darwin was the first person to propose that human emotions have evolved throughout history. Each emotion then has been shaped by natural selection as a coping mechanism to meet the demands of our environments. As any self-help book will tell you, emotions are much more about what is in your body than what is in your mind. They regulate the body in line with environmental cues. For example:

  • Fear = to cope with danger. The eyes widen, and the digestive system shuts down (so that more blood is available for the extremities). The emotion of fear prepares our body to fight or flee.
  • Disgust = to cope with poisonous foods. The openings of the face automatically narrow when you feel disgusted to protect you from inhaling any potentially dangerous fumes.

Communicative tool

More research is needed on the physiological purposes of some emotions. Happiness, for example, does not trigger any noticeable physical responses. My own little thought would be that the absence of threat would laps the body into repair mode. But besides being a coping mechanism, research found that emotions are also a communicative tool. Just look at these examples:

  • Sadness = to gain sympathy. Tears block the vision, which have no real purpose to us in isolation. But in a community setting, they say to others that we are vulnerable and need protection.
  • Anger = to signal dominance. Anger again appears to have no use in isolation. But the clenching jaw and upright (fighting) position signal to your peers that you are not to be messed with.

The messiness begins

Fast forward about 200,000 years later and things become messy. Really messy. We all know that evolution is playing catch-up with our modern-day environment. Eating all the fruit you could find in prehistory times was a smart survival tactic. Eating an entire roll of biscuits nowadays is detrimental to our health. The same goes for our emotions. Sadness has a function. Depression doesn’t. Equally fear has a use to us, whereas anxiety doesn’t. Our modern-day environment emits cues that are processed by the brain in a way that was useful millions of years ago. Now our ancient brains cause an epidemic of depression and anxiety.

It is not a feeling

During my stint with severe anxiety, I learned that stress causes a highly intricate bodily chain reaction. Hormones are emitted in response to environmental cues. The body doesn’t differentiate here between the approach of a sabre tooth tiger or a nearing deadline. Then these hormones cause all sorts of different bodily reactions (check out my article on the physiology of stress to learn more). In prehistoric times the sabre tooth tiger would eventually walk away (or eat you!). In modern times, there is always another deadline luring or a trend not to be missed or a stream of information to consume. Our primal brain is bombarded with cues that emit a stress response. So, our body is constantly in a state of fear (stress is a form of fear) without any real danger lurking. We are suffering as a result of a rapidly changing environment that the slow process of evolution cannot keep up with. In other words, emotions have become messy.

There you have it. My little exposé on the messiness of human emotions. I find it fascinating to ponder about the way that ancient mechanisms shape and dictate our interactions with the environment. How whenever we allude to ourselves as sophisticated, our primal brains whips us right back into primitivity.

I would love to know if you ever think about emotions in this way. And what is your favourite emotion?