What to Do When Plans Change or You Have Nothing to Do
Updated: Nov 23, 2019
Sami, a 22-year-old young professional, sat in my office talking about how she “hates” when people are on a different time schedule than her.
“Sometimes they don’t want to go out till 9 or 10 pm and I want to go out by at least 8pm, because I like to wake up early and I don’t want to be all tired the next day…. and it’s just so hard for me to wait.”
I asked, “What happens when you are waiting?”
Sami rolls her eyes and says “I get soooooo bored. I’m always ready to go earlier than I need to be, and I hate not having anything to do in the meantime. It’s really frustrating and my mind just can’t take it.”
I smile as I realize I’ve heard a version of this “boredom” problem before. It can sound like:
“My girlfriend is always 30 minutes later than she thinks she will be. I never know how to fill the time and end up just sitting on the couch and being irritated at her.”
“I just can’t be friends with people that cancel at the last minute. It’s totally rude when people don’t follow through on their commitments. I’d rather just be alone.
“When I get everything done before a party, and I am just waiting for everyone to show up, it’s the absolute worst feeling. I get so nervous and end up pacing around my apartment, doing nothing but wearing out the carpet,”
No doubt we all deal with plan changes, waiting on people and not having events go according to our schedule, but it’s interesting that some people really despise the “disruption.” I tend to hear this complaint about boredom and irritation mostly from my overcontrolled leaning clients.
The question that always comes to my mind is: What is this person avoiding by getting irritated or anxious while they wait?
I’ve heard all kinds of answers to the avoidance question:
“I get really sad and disappointed when I’m looking forward to something, and then it doesn’t happen like I thought it would. I sometimes have to hold back tears.”
“It’s really hard to feel like the wind has just been taken out of my sails. I want to protect myself from feeling that, so I don’t make plans with people.”
“I don’t like to be alone with my thoughts. It’s ugly up there.”
“I feel panic, like maybe the person doesn’t like me. If they liked me they’d be here on time and show up.”
“I just want to be productive and this feels like a total waste of time.”
“It’s such a let down. It takes so much effort to get ready and I feel so much anxiety all the time anyway that I just would rather not make plans so I don’t have to be disappointed. “
These are no small responses to such a common life event. So how does someone learn to deal with changes? The RO DBT skill Flexible Mind DEFinitely has some thoughts. (Lynch, Lesson 1.B).
1. Notice the distress that the time change or schedule disruption brings. What’s the emotion or sensation associated with the distress? How high is the distress on a scale of 1 to 10? Basically get in touch with your distress.
2. Rather than one’s usual response to distress, the skill asks us to pause and ask a simple question or two to learn from the distress through self enquiry. Some possible questions that might help in the moment are:
What is my distress trying to tell me about myself? Is there something to learn?
Am I avoiding anything by getting anxious or angry?
What important goal in my life just got blocked?
Where did I get the idea that everything should go according to my schedule?
Does this interaction mean more to me that I realized?
Is it possible that excitement is a difficult emotion for me to manage?
3. Flexibly respond in the moment based on the situation. Since every situation is different, a flexible response might be unique to each situation and different for each person; however, the overall question is:
How do I want to show up and signal to the people that disappointed me or irritated me?
If I verbally rip off their head, will that get me closer to my value goals? If I hide away at home, will I be lonelier? If I share my distress, could it bring me closer to another person? If you find yourself doing the same ole thing, it’s probably not a flexible response.
Try something new:
Disinhibit an urge when in the past you’ve inhibited one.
Suspend a behavior when in the past you’ve been engaging in it.
Express what you are feeling when you’ve held it in previously.
Share your beliefs and thoughts when you’ve been editing before.
Or vice versa for all these options. Go ahead give flexibility a try.
Hope Arnold is a RODBT therapist in Denver, CO.