T is for Thinking it Through, Testing the Waters

In the post on Reality Checks and Relationships I made a few critical points I hope you will remember:

  1. Your partner is not responsible for your anxiety, even though it exists in the energetic system between you, and both of you end up dealing with it one way or another.
  2. Sometimes anxious people are right to worry, even if they have an overly dramatic way of doing it.
  3.  If you acknowledge the possibility, regardless how remote, that their worry may be based in reality, (if that is, indeed, true)  then it can help diffuse anxiety and allow you to work as a couple.
  4. When trying to decide if a partner is actually creating part of the anxiety or could help diffuse anxious tension, looking at solutions using ‘results and reason’ is a good place to start. In that way you may move toward compromise.

He’s perfectly safe standing up in that Portland Pudgy.

In this post, I am following up on that last point.  I’ve created an exercise for you to test the waters around the stories your inner Amy G. Dala tells you. This exercise will help you decide when and how your partner can help relieve anxious tension, specifically around boating safety issues, without being responsible for your underlying overly active Amy. G. Dala. Yay! It’s really just a way to start a conversation and to engage your partner in cooperative problem solving. It’s a way that you can stop wallowing around in the puddle of feelings that is anxiety and begin taking concrete action.  It also helps you see clearly when your partner can do nothing so you need to let them off the hook and handle it yourself.

Remember:  we are talking only about anxiety, which is an over reaction to perceived threat that is only marginally, if at all, based in reality. We’re not talking about fear, which is a reasonable response to a real threat that is completely reality based. If my boat has lost its engine and we are being blown toward rocks, that feeling I’m going to have is called fear and is based in the physical world. If my partner insists that she never needs to use safety equipment because she is somehow too skilled for that, I’m going to be worried because she is being stupid. (Maybe I should be considering the wisdom of sailing with her.)

When S/V America was in port.

You’ll need a piece of paper or a notebook, and something to write with. Yes, please, do this the old fashioned way. You still remember how to make the letters, no? Writing things on paper by hand is a more visceral experience than typing them into a phone or laptop. Our bodies recognize writing this way. Get out a straight edge and a number 2 pencil and go for it.

Divide the sheet of paper into 4 columns like in the photo.  You are creating a spreadsheet the way you may have done in 5th grade if you are my age.  Please do not be tempted to just create a spreadsheet on your computer. That’s missing the point about this being a visceral experience. Computer spreadsheets are in your head. I want this to be in your body. You could even make it artistic if you want to.

Fran ‘The Frontal’ Cortex is going to star in this show because we want cool reason for this exercise. Make a numbered list of the things that create anxiety for you. This is a working document, so you can always add to it. Just start with the biggest worries first, the ones you know Amy G. Dala spins her web around all the time. Try to be specific, not general. For instance, putting ‘I’m afraid something bad will happen’ is so general that there will be little fruit in discussing solutions.

Make a chart.

In the next column by each item, put a number between 1 and 10 that describes how anxious you feel when you think about that fear. A 10 would be sheer panic. Put a slash like this / by the number because your partner is going to do this, too and you want to leave room. When you are finished, have your partner rate their level of anxiety for each item. (You might want to do this out loud by reading them the list so they don’t see your numbers. It’s ‘cleaner’ that way.)

Next is the brainstorming session. (We will assume, for this exercise, that only one partner actually has clinical anxiety.) What practical solutions can you come up with to bring your number closer to your partner’s? What solutions can your partner think of? If both numbers are high, then what needs to happen to bring them both down? Be creative. Think of everything. Ask other people for their input, too.

For instance, take a look at number 1 on my chart, ‘We will crush another boat when we leave the slip.’.  Notice that my anxiety is at a 6 on this, while Mike’s is at a 3. (Anyone who doesn’t have a certain amount of anxiety pulling a boat out of a slip probably isn’t paying attention.) All the ways we could help bring my high 6 down closer to his 3 are listed in the brainstorming section. Notice I lined through buying a bow thruster. That’s because it’s unrealistic for us at this point. In a brainstorming session, be sure to write down everything you can think of. You can discard the ones that won’t work later.

Our sweet little Walker Bay has been good to us in these waters.

Pick one or two solutions and begin putting them into practice. After putting some of the brainstorming suggestions into practice, go back to the chart and rate your anxiety again to see how much it has come down. Rinse and repeat as necessary.

If you and your partner have come up with practical, reasonable, physical world solutions that you’ve agreed to, put those into play, and your anxiety is not decreased, then it’s on you.  Your partner has done their part. You’ll need to go to the other coping skills you have developed and let them off the hook. See how that works?

For example, say you are worried about anchoring out. You realize this is irrational because you know that thousands of boaters anchor out all the time without a problem. Your partner wants to anchor out. Asking your partner to never anchor out is unreasonable. What would be a reasonable compromise? Making sure there is a good dinghy to go ashore? Understanding how anchoring works? Practicing for small amounts of time in safe, quiet waters? Meet each other halfway. Give a little. Whatever anxiety is left after you’ve compromised and done those things is up to you to handle without burdening your partner with it.

Note to non-anxious partners: this exercise requires you to put your ego to bed for awhile. If you expect your partner to be realistic and honest, then you must do the same. Dig deep and discover if you are at all concerned about any of the same things, even if you believe them to be unlikely.

For instance, some people are afraid they will fall off the boat. Even if you have never even given it a conscious thought, you know that people do, actually, fall off boats all the time. It’s a real thing that happens and it’s likely that you take steps to prevent it, even if those steps are largely unconscious. Think hard about it. Since it actually does happen, you should consider taking some precautions or identifying out loud the precautions that you already take.  Denying it’s anything to be concerned about is not being cooperative in the context of this exercise and could easily be a root cause of your partner’s apparent over-concern.  Unless the fear listed is something like ‘unicorns are sleeping in our bed and pigs are flying around us’, you’re better off putting a number greater than 0 in the box. Shit happens. And if you don’t admit that, you are almost certainly contributing to the level of anxiety on your boat.

At the end of the day, this little exercise is only a way to get a conversation going and put things in writing in terms of planning and problem solving, without casting blame. When people write things down together they are more likely to follow through, especially when they intend to revisit the paper and see how things are going. I cannot stress enough, however, that this kind of cooperation requires two mature adults who are doing their best to be rational and reality based, and who both care about the other’s happiness and contentment on the boat. There has to be willingness to give a little.  It’s a relationship. It’s about both people.

Just joined us for the A to Z Challenge? Read from the Letter A.

This is just so fast! I could barely believe it.

This is just so fast! I could barely believe it.

10 thoughts on “T is for Thinking it Through, Testing the Waters

  1. I actually do a one-sided verbal version of this that drives my partner crazy ! When we dock the boat in difficult circumstances, I start “one-sided brainstorming out loud”. He thinks I’m trying to tell him what to do. After a few blow ups, I told him that I’m not really trying to tell him what to do, but that babbling is my way of coping, of feeling like I’m not a helpless victim watching a horror movie unfold. He has agreed that I can continue babbling (softly), and I have agreed that he can ignore me when I do. (oh, but just wait till I babble something he should have done that would have saved the situation…). I’ve really learned a lot from your R and T posts. The R one really hit home and I have a clearer appreciation of some maddening behaviors I’ve been trying to understand for years. My new anxiety: what happens after Z ?? How about a weekly or monthly Psychology of Sailing? You could eventually turn it into a call-in / write-in show !

    • I’m so glad these are helping you make sense of what sounds like some tense moments! Boy do I understand the whole ‘babbling’ thing when it comes to docking, and sometimes even anchoring if the conditions are not what I like. It’s funny you should mention a regular column on the blog. It’s something I’ve been thinking about and discussing with my neighbor. I’ve been a little surprised at how our blog stats have gone way up during this series and I can only think it’s a subject that people just don’t talk much about, even though there appears to be interest. I think it’s a personal enough thing that lots of people read but don’t comment because it’s, again, so personal. But yes, I’m considering doing a regular column. What I’d really like to do is have the questions come from readers. Then I can pick the question for the month and be sure I’m answering something that at least one person is curious about or wants answers to. Of course, all identifying information from the questioner would be confidential. No name, etc. If that got enough action, I would keep doing it.

      • Yes ! There have been a few times I haven’t chimed in simply because it was too personal; using an anonymous name would be necessary to get down to the nitty gritty! With the WWS forum, I’m sure you’d get flooded with requests. This series and your role in it are unique. Sailing is a different world that comes with real fears and anxiety, lots of gender issues and conflicts, problems with living 24/7 in a confined space, living far from home, friends, and family, etc. The fact that you are a professional, that you sail, that you share personal information about your own battles, and that you do it with humor makes this really interesting. You might even consider writing up a few of them for publication in sailing magazines. Here in France we have a sailing doctor who addresses medical issues regularly in the magazines, but that’s not half as much fun as psychological issues, is it?

        • I am certainly considering writing a few for publication, but it’s going to be awhile before I have the energy for that! This series has been more intense than I imagined it would be, for sure. Thanks for your support in an idea I had been batting around in my head, wondering how I could continue to have a hand in my profession without having actual ‘sessions’ with people. You’ll be interested to know that many years ago I registered the domain name ‘Dear Therapist’. It’s still my professional web address name. DearTherapist.com. Perhaps I could use that as a way for people to contact me. I will give it more thought!

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  3. I have to echo what Maria has said – this has been an excellent series and you should find a way to leverage this after the series. You’ve got the credentials, empathy and great sense of humor to make anything you do in this space a winner.

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