A Little Known Story About O.P.P.

Let’s talk about O.P.P. (Yeah you know me.)

What is O.P.P.? Well, in this post, we are talking about Other People’s Panic.

I am talking about those well-meaning questions that come at you from everyone – from your best friends to random strangers and everyone in between -- when you find yourself in the in-between.  If you are in the process of making a big life change and haven’t experienced this yet... wait for it, just wait for it.

Sometimes the questions are more like question-statements. In their most innocuous form, they are presented as a curiosity with an overtone of concern. At the other end of the spectrum, they can come across as downright judgmental and condescending. They usually sound something like:

  • Wow, sounds like a great adventure. I’d never be brave enough to do that.
  • Aren’t you lucky to be laid off? And with a severance package to boot!
  • Now that you’re finally free, tell me what is your big life plan?
  • Do you have any idea what you’re going to do to make money?
  • Oh well, that must be nice. I’m sure you have a lot of savings.
  • I totally understand. It’s just that your mother/father is worried about you.
  • How are you going to get another job / find clients / win customers?
  • What will you tell people when they ask about this gap in your resume?
  • So, have you figured out what you are going to do next?

Oh dear, I feel my anxiety bubbling up just by writing these questions down.

This is normal.

In the process of making any kind of major life change, there is almost always a period of uncertainty, a time of instability. That can make a lot of people, including you yourself, very, VERY nervous.

So how do we deal with Other People’s Panic?

1. Feel the Love

Before you push away all these well-meaning nervous nellies in your life, let’s reframe. What is it that motivates your friends and family to communicate their concern, whether aggressively, or passive-aggressively? Usually, when you pause for a moment, what you will see is ultimately love. Yes, their love for you. Their love is mixed in with long-held fears and beliefs about the big, bad, scary world out there; worries that it may hurt you, their beloved! So let’s give them a break. They are scared for you. That is love. Distorted maybe, but still love. Recognize this and give these fears room to breathe.

It is perfectly okay to be afraid. Look for the love behind the fear. And it is good to remember fear, like laughter, is wildly contagious. You can build your immunity to catching the fear bug by staying true to practices that help you strengthen your ability to stay with yourself, whether it’s yoga or dance or meditation or art or writing or spending time in nature.

2. Get Curious

Another dynamic that is worth recognizing is that often, when other people get themselves busy busy busy questioning your life choices, it may be because your choices are calling into question their choices. So, by focusing their line of questioning on you, these well-meaning question askers might be avoiding questions they may have for themselves, and the things they may be reluctant to examine in their own lives.

The cure for this kind of question-projection is to get curious. Become genuinely interested. Ask lots of questions. Without falling prey to the temptation to assume superiority over the asker, find out what’s at the root of their anxiety-inducing interrogations.

3. Question More

When we feel pressured by all the concerned questions that sometimes seem to come at us from all directions, it is easy to feel overwhelmed. We grow increasingly anxious because we are unable to come up with satisfactory answers. That sense of overwhelm actually takes away from our natural ability to live into the answers with ease.

My invitation may seem counterintuitive, but please try this exercise and let me know how it goes:

A great way to deal with too many unanswered questions is to ask yourself more questions. Sometimes it can be therapeutic to sit down with a blank page and free write question after question... write down whatever musings come to mind, without stopping to answer the questions, or even to question the questions.

Go ahead. Try this. Do it for 10 minutes right now before you continue reading.

[spoiler alert]
Eventually your hand starts to cramp from furiously writing. That is when you sit back to review these stream-of-consciousness questions. What you might be surprised find is that they tend to fall into three buckets:

  • the "immediately irrelevant" – Did I get a reply to my email? What is for lunch?  [Who cares?]
  • the “ultimately unknowable” – Where is this leading me? What will happen if I fail?  [Who knows?]
  • and the “fundamentally fixed” – Am I supported? Am I loved? Am I worthy?  [YES. Always YES.]

The recognition of this can provide comfort. It does for me. Tell me if it works for you!