Saturday, November 29, 2008

How to create chaos?

If your family life was a roller coaster ride, you’re probably feeling the same sort of thrill/terror right now as you get ready for your date to begin. You’re likely running a teeny bit late, you’re not totally sure what you’re going to wear, and you think you know where you’re going. What you’re doing, in essence, is re-creating the same chaos you experienced as a child because that’s familiar. In this time of stress, you’re regressing to the comfortable days when, even though your family life was nutty, you knew your way around.
I can hear you now: “Just a minute, Dr. Joy . . . I’m running late because my boss called me into her office just as I was leaving.” You haven’t settled on an outfit because you weren’t sure what the weather would be. For heaven’s sake, you’re a grown-up. You don’t need to pin the directions to your sleeve — you’re pretty sure you know where you’re going!
All fine and accurate, but irrelevant. They’re cool excuses, but excuses nonetheless.
You don’t have to do this anymore. You don’t have to replay your old family scenes in your current life. You can tell your boss you have an appointment, you can wear a jacket if the weather’s cold, you can drive with confidence because you know where you’re going. You can feel cool, calm, and collected before a date. It’s a choice you can make a little more upfront so that you can sweat a little less later. Your choice: cool short-term or cool long-term (Hint: always go for the long-term — it lasts longer). If you want to never let ’em see you sweat, sweat when they’re not around. Nothing comes easily to everyone. Trust me on this.

Understanding Stress History

You can always tell more about a person by examining what they do repeatedly than by holding a magnifying glass up to one mistake or one incredibly romantic moment. Unless this is your first ever date (in which case, you can look at your behavior in other stressful situations like final exams, sports try-outs, school play auditions, and so on), think back to other first dates you’ve known. Did you feel the same way? Act in a similar manner? Call everyone in your address book and obsess for days? My guess is the answer is yes. And there’s a very simple explanation why. When stressed, we regress, which means that we revert to an earlier form of behavior that’s familiar and comfy. It’s why kids become unpottytrained when they get a new sib, or why most of us become childlike when we get sick. Often, you return to the way you behaved with your family when you were growing up. This doesn’t mean the circumstances were always good, just familiar. Remember that old joke about the man who wouldn’t stop banging his head against the wall? When asked why, he responded, “It’s the only thing I know how to do really well, and it feels really good when I stop.”
We all learned really well how to respond to stress. This does not mean we all respond really well.
Think back to the morning of one of your childhood family vacations. Or just before Thanksgiving dinner at your house. Or watching your parents get ready to go out. Pick the scenario that best describes the scene:
  • Serenity reigns. The bags were packed the day before and are lined up at the front door. The kids are lined up, too, ready to march single-file into the station wagon. Or, the table was set the night before. Roasted turkey smells fill the calm air. Your mom relaxes on the couch watching her kids play tiddlywinks. Or, the baby-sitter is early, Mom is dressed and waiting, Dad has the directions in hand and made the reservation weeks ago and is always so efficient Mom never once has to ask him, “Did ya remember to . . . ?”
  • Chaos reigns. You’re riffling through the pile of dirty laundry in the corner of your bedroom searching for your favorite T-shirt to stuff into your suitcase. Dad keeps yelling, “If you don’t get into the car now, we’re leaving without you.” Or, you’re polishing silver as the doorbell rings, the kitchen looks like Hurricane Andrew blew through, and your mother vows, “Next year, Thanksgiving is at Grandma’s!” Or, Dad is yelling at Mom, who’s been in the bathroom for the past 45 minutes, “If you don’t get in the car now, I’m leaving without you!” When Mom is finally ready, she asks your dad if he has the address where they’re going, and he says, “I thought you had it.”
If you picked the second scenario, your family is like almost everyone’s family. If you picked the first, your parents were probably hatched from an alien pod. In most families, chaos is a part of all big events, at least to some degree. Your family life was the school in which you learned how things are “supposed” to be before a big event in your life right now.

Breaking the stress wall

A stress wall is a barrier most people build to keep strangers from getting too close too soon. It keeps others at arm’s length. Like small talk, the walls we construct to protect ourselves have gotten a bum rap. When built properly (out of movable and removable building blocks rather than cement), emotional walls serve a very handy purpose. They keep dashing, yet deadly, Attila the Huns from jabbing a spear into the center of your heart, or nineheaded Hydras from swimming across your emotional moat and slithering into your life. The notion that instant vulnerability is a desirable trait is dangerous, indeed.

After all, we’re not in Eden anymore.
What I’m trying to get at is the sense that some feelings of stress are a normal and essential part of being alive, and — dare I say it? — of staying alive. Dating, by its very nature, is one big, fat unknown. It’s okay to feel a bit of trepidation. It’s good to drive cautiously with your eyes on the road and your hands at “ten and two” on the steering wheel. What’s not productive, however, is to work yourself into a tizzy because you’re suddenly convinced a serial killer must lurk in the soul of anyone who would date you or that a vengeful ex in an eighteen wheeler is about to cross the median and obliterate you. The goal of this section is to show you how to manage your stress and make it work for you, not wear you out. First, ask yourself the following questions:
  • Was I sober and of sound mind when the date was originally arranged?
  • Have I spoken to this person since the date was made?
  • Is excitement buried beneath my feelings of stress (as opposed to dread)?
  • Is this someone I would unhesitatingly introduce to my mother? If all or most of your answers are “yes,” your stress wall will probably start lowering a bit as soon as your date laughs at your first joke.

Understanding the Psychology of Stress

In previous chapters, I discuss the physiology of stress: how your body shifts into the fight-or-flight mode and pumps you up with adrenaline when you face a tense situation. Later in this chapter, I give you step-by-step instructions on how to calm those heart-racing, stomach-churning, mouth-drying, palm-sweating symptoms. Now, though, I want you to explore the other side —the psychology of stress.
Stress is your system’s response to being overtaxed by anxiety due to excess drink, sun, food, work, or even fun — too much of anything, even good stuff, stretches the boundaries. Stress is a spring that’s wound too tightly. It’s your body’s equivalent of a flashing yellow light, a Caution sign, or a Slippery when Wet warning.
When you’re just getting to know someone, your senses rally all their resources to help you evaluate whether this human being is a friend or foe. Intuition, past experiences, present observations, your ability to trust — they all come into play and keep cooking as new “cues” come your way. Until you’ve had enough positive cues to convince you that — whew! — this person is okay (he or she isn’t going to hurt me, humiliate me, or leave me holding the check), you’re going to feel a tad stressed, and the yellow light continues to flash, meaning you’re not ready to let your guard down just yet.
You can reduce your anxiety by understanding that stress is a natural and useful response to an unknown and potentially scary situation. Instead of dismissing your stress, you can leave yourself on guard and then, as you feel more confident, allow less and less of a barrier between the two of you, which is the whole point of dating. It’s okay to leave this wall of protection in place for a while, while you peek around to see what’s on the other side.

Countdown toward dating

  • 10 minutes Scan your reflection in a full-length mirror. Check for hanging threads, lint, and cat hair. Note: If you see a thread dangling from a button, don’t pull the thread. It’ll fall off as sure as leaves vacate trees in autumn. Instead, wrap the thread around the button and make a mental note to sew it on before date two.
  • 9 minutes Use the restroom. If you don’t have to go now, you probably will in ten minutes, so give it a shot.
  • 8 minutes Double-check your purse or wallet. Make sure you have your driver’s license, cash, credit cards, lipstick, tissues, keys, and breath mints. Stash your purse near the door and your wallet near your heart.
  • 7 minutes Give your shoes a quick buff with a shoe shine brush or soft cloth (not the back of your pants —that’s for emergencies only).
  • 6 minutes If you’re going to wear an overcoat or jacket, take it out of the closet and drape it over a chair near the door. It’s rarely wise to let a date see behind any closed doors until you at least know the person’s middle name.
  • 5 minutes Grab a hand mirror and check out the back of your head. Make sure your hair looks as good going as coming.
  • 4 minutes Quick tooth check. Lipstick? Dried spittle in the corners of your mouth? Parsley? Chocolate? Take care of it immediately.
  • 3 minutes Quick breath check. Because no one can smell his or her own bad breath, play it safe and pop one of those breath mints you’ve stashed in your purse or pocket.
  • 2 minutes Deep breathing. Shut your eyes, inhale, hold, blow it out through your minty-fresh mouth. Repeat for the full minute.
  • 1 minute Guided imagery. Close your eyes again and picture a calm person answering the door with an easy, inviting smile.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

One Final Checklist

The best way to appear casual and relaxed is to have done your homework.
The Boy Scouts are right: Be prepared. Preparation creates calm and security. There’s nothing like knowing you have it all under control and the bases are covered. Conversely, what’s more anxiety producing than being caught short? Besides, preparation is the realm of grown-ups. Only little kiddies frantically dash around at the last minute trying to tie up loose ends. To not only appear grown-up but to be way cool:
  • Know where you’re going.
  • Know how to get there.
  • Make sure you have enough gas.
  • Know how much (more or less) thing are going to cost.
  • Make sure you have enough money.
  • Make sure you have $20 tucked somewhere for emergencies.
  • Make sure your watch is working.
  • Check the following:
    • Breath
    • Teeth
    • Wallet
    • Condom (always be prepared!)
    • Pits
    • Wardrobe
    • Baby-sitter (when appropriate)
    • Curfew (when appropriate)
    • Calendar (make sure you’ve got the right day, date, and time)
    • Date’s phone number (for emergency traffic snarls, lost directions, and so on)
    • Date’s address
    • Tickets (for time and date)
Fellas, if you want to win a huge number of points, make sure you always have two clean, ironed handkerchiefs on hand. You can buy them very cheaply at street fairs or discount stores. Keep a bunch around because nothing will stun a woman more than offering her a clean, white, pressed, unscented handkerchief when she gets something in her eye or when she’s crying at a movie. You instantly become the man. Tissues will not work.

Know your Directions

Take a deep breath, guys. I’m not going to suggest that you ask for directions. But, what I will say to both men and women is this: Know where you’re going and the best way to get there before you pick up your date. In addition, know how to navigate the location once you arrive: Know where to park the car, where the front door is, and (if you really want to impress your date) where the restrooms are.
I know you would never not know where you’re going, but heaven forbid you get lost and have to look at a map. Until you know each other really well, beware these seven words: “A map is in the glove compartment.” This seemingly innocent statement sends shivers of fear through otherwise normal people. Orient the map may mean “find China” to one of you and “get out the compass and find true north” to the other. One person reading a map while the other is driving in foreign territory is asking for trouble: One of you helplessly watches highway exits whiz by while the other frantically searches for the name of the city you’re in. If (heaven forbid) you must consult a map, do you and your date a favor and pull over, pull the map out, and leave the radio on something soothing. Never, even when you do know one another really well, utter these nine words: “Let’s find a gas station and ask for directions.”

Money management in dating

The time to swing by the ATM is the day before your date. Nothing kills the illusion of a together, take-charge person faster than fumbling with your PIN while your date waits in the car.
If you ask, you pay. So be sure to do the following:
  • Stash plenty of cash. If you can’t afford where you’re going, go someplace else.
  • Don’t assume the place you’re going takes credit cards. If you don’t know (meaning you haven’t called in advance to make sure), bring enough cash to cover the most expensive item on the menu or at the venue. Or better, call in advance to both the place and your credit card customer service to make sure that your card will be accepted there (or anywhere).
  • Have a few dollar bills handy for tipping valets, and so on. For a rough estimate on how much you’ll need for tips

Transportation management in dating

No, you don’t have to pick your date up in a stretch limo to be impressive. What you do need to do is gas up and clean out your car (especially if you still smoke). Empty the ashtray, wipe down the dash, and pick up the lipstick that rolls to the front every time you hit the brakes. Use all five senses. If your auto smells like a locker room, spritz air freshener after you clean up. If it looks like you pass through a fast food drive-thru each time you hit the road, vacuum and scan for shriveled french fries and errant ketchup packs in the crevices beside your seat.
Unless you want your date to think you moonlight as a cab driver, take that dangling air freshener (and anything else that dangles above your dash) off the rearview mirror.
Many city folk, some youngsters, and future billionaires who’d rather spend time in front of a computer screen than behind the wheel don’t have a car. If you’re in that category, you can do the following:
  • Have a (clean, undented) cab waiting.
  • Plan to meet at the date destination.
  • Rent a car.
  • Borrow a car.
  • Go somewhere within walking distance.
  • Hire a car service for the night.
  • Okay, impress your date with a stretch limo (but not on a first date).
There’s no shame to having no wheels. Where a reprimand creeps in, however, is when the “autoless” treat the “autoed” like chauffeurs. Don’t go there. Most importantly, don’t make your date go there to pick you up.

Time management in dating

Most people have a thing about time. Some people, like me, are always early and hate being kept waiting. Tardiness can feel really insulting. (I’ve always been prompt, but being a broadcaster makes me especially careful. If you’re a minute late, you can lose your job. The “on air” light waits for no one.) Some people always keep you waiting as a sign of power. They feel important when they make people wait for them. What’s really important, though, especially in the beginning of a relationship, is to show consideration for each other and be on time. It lowers the adrenaline and anxiety in an already tense situation. For those of you who are always late, remind yourself that you’re late for your mom or your little brother because you can be. You know they’ll put up with it. You’re probably not late for your boss, because she won’t put up with it and will can you. Ask yourself whether you’re using time as a way of armwrestling for attention. If so, figure out a better way to get attention. Promptness is the courtesy of kings, and isn’t that how we all want to be treated?
I know it’s considered cool to keep your escort waiting downstairs for your descent, but think about it: Is it any more acceptable for you to keep him waiting than for him to keep you on ice? It’s rude and can really throw plans and stomachs into turmoil.
If you want to make sure you’re on time, try these techniques:
  • If you’re not sure where you’re going, plan a dry run the day before. Getting lost will make you late and nervous.
  • If you always tend to be late, give yourself an extra half-hour to get ready. This is a great idea even if you’re not dating!
  • Decide to be on time. Clocks are simple to read if you actually look at them.
  • Don’t overbook. If you can’t easily make it to the cleaners on your way home from work so that you have enough time to walk the dog before you shower, shampoo, shave, and blow-dry your hair, make a later date or get a cat.