Best Thing to Pack When Travelling? Flexible Mind

I have an enduring old story that “I am not a traveller.”  As someone who leans to OC, I naturally prefer structure, routine and predictable outcomes.  I hate public loos (but know where they all are), not knowing what bus to catch or making mistakes in another language.  The first time I went to France I stopped some people walking dogs, and missing my own dogs said: “Nous sommes chiens de Canada maison.”  I meant to say, “we have dogs at home in Canada” but actually said “we are dogs from Canada House.”  I also once said something terrible on an exchange to Italy that cannot be repeated here.  Really, this travel business can get embarrassing.  Don’t worry, as a good OC I am enrolled in French lessons to avoid this in the future!

Despite my old story, as a RO DBT trainer, I have travelled more in the last 4 years than I have in a lifetime.  What I have discovered is that my OC rigid coping tends to pop up with travel and that is likely where I need to use some RO DBT skills. This usually begins many hours before the flight:

Nicole: “Honey, international rules are that I have to be at the airport 3 hours prior to boarding.  So we have to get up at 2:30 AM so I can be there by 4AM.”

My partner, who is UC, normally replies: “Oh for goodness sake, who would go to the airport at that time in the morning?”

Nicole: “I WOULD, because IT IS THE RULE.”

My partner: “We practically live in a village, don’t worry about it.”

And it carries on a little bit, tee-hee, because Victoria BC is not a village and a good OC thinks about potential challenges like weather, traffic, and built in time if you forgot to check the stove or forgot your passport or have to pee in one of the god awful public bathrooms along the way.  For the record, she has never gotten me late to the airport, even when our elderly Border Collie decided she needed to evacuate her bowels along the way there.  Anyway, I digress.

Some flights are 10 hours, others only 2, but let me tell you, getting ON the flight is the key ingredient.  And most times, getting on the flight requires flexibly responding (see also Jaime’s blog). Take for example, my last flight to San Francisco.  Despite giving ample time to get to the airport, my flight was delayed and it was looking dicey I would make my connection in Vancouver.  I sprinted through the Vancouver airport and arrived hot and disheveled at the passport control line.  I had 15 minutes to make my connection to San Francisco.  There were at least 20 people ahead of me plus the Nexus line that was 12 people deep.  Now, I failed math twice (if I am counting correctly) but could tell the Number of People In Line – Flight Boarding Time = Sh*t.

In RO DBT skills class, we teach states of mind in Lesson 11.  I love teaching this lesson because it fires up some great examples from clients and me. My initial response above was what we would call Fixed Mind.  The analogy that Dr. Lynch uses is that Fixed Mind “is like being the captain of the Titanic and your motto is ‘full speed ahead, icebergs be damned!”’ (Lynch, 2018, p. 245).  In the passport line, I recall thinking, “I must stay the course despite the time crunch; there are no other options.”  Or for some attempted math: Number of People in Line – Flight Boarding Time = this is the plan and the airline would not have booked you for an impossible mission to get to San Francisco.  In other words, I paid for this flight and I am getting on it.  And the airport better cooperate!

However, I soon moved to Fatalistic Mind, partly because now you have to be practically naked to go through security and taking off shoes, belts, scarves, etc. and taking out your triple electronic devices is time consuming!  To carry our analogy forward, in Fatalistic Mind  “the captain of the Titanic, after hitting the first iceberg, retreats to his cabin, locks the door, and refuses to help steer the ship to safety, determine the next course of action, or, if necessary, help passengers safely abandon ship” (Lynch, 2018, p.245).  So in the lineup, my thoughts were “I will never get through, I might as well give up now and I am never travelling again!”  Despite, of course, that my RO tribe was expecting me in San Francisco!

When I teach this concept in skills class, my OC clients tend to lean more to Fixed Mind or Fatalistic Mind as a general rule.  I am aware of imagining with my overly disagreeable subtype, I tend to lean to fixed mind.  While it is important to note where one leans, it may be more important to know how to implement a state of Flexible Mind.  My example above is also complicated by rigid and rule governed behaviour, which is one of the five formal RO DBT themes introduced.  For example, despite having only 15 minutes to get to my gate, I hold certain rules of politeness.  This may or may not be influenced by being Canadian!  For example, one must never jump the queue.  One must never display distress when travelling.  One must never inconvenience other travellers, etc.  But this then conflicts with the rule I have, one must never be late! Oh the mental gymnastics of travelling.

So what happened?  Like any good OC I was quaking with anxiety on the inside but keeping it together on the outside. Feeling like an overheated cow in a slow moving herd of cattle, I leaned across the magic fabric line marker, and putting my best closed mouthed cooperative smile on and raising my eyebrows, said: “My connection is boarding in 10 minutes, would it be possible to step in front of you?”  The woman replied, “of course!”  And then I practised this with three more people, effectively getting me to the front on the line. I was utterly (or shall I say udderly, tee-hee) surprised that my passport line tribe was willing to help me out – a perfect stranger!

I then sprinted to my gate.  I get a lot of exercise in airports these days! And just made my flight. I was “that” person getting on the plane last. But I made my flight, thanks to flexibly responding. Oh, I had to flexibly respond the way back, which is a different story.  But don’t worry, I eventually got my luggage.  Perhaps the airline got the memo that I was challenging my rule of “must unpack and do laundry within 10 minutes of arriving home.”

About the author: J. Nicole Little, PhD, RCC

Nicole is a therapist specializing in eating disorders and other conditions of overcontrol in Victoria, B.C., Canada.  She has also taught for 13 years at Universities and colleges. Her passions are RO DBT and animal assisted therapy.