The Anxious Approach
Those of us with anxious brains tend to go through life with a white-knuckle grip on it. We like structure, we like to have a plan, and we like to know what to expect. If we don’t know what to expect, we can’t properly prepare. If we can’t properly prepare, we won’t be able to handle the catastrophe that is inevitably just around the bend. That’s what our anxious brains tell us.
This is how I have always approached life. I overthink so I can anticipate every possible scenario, I prepare for all of them, and then I brute-force things to follow my plan. I want things to go my way, and I push hard to make it happen. I army-crawl through life.
This approach makes me feel safe, but it doesn’t always “work.” I definitely do not always get my way, and my expectations are often not met. Also, it’s exhausting. Brute-forcing life is exhausting. And I am beginning to think that it’s limiting. There may be more to life than what I can imagine, especially when I’m so focused on avoiding catastrophe.
The Go with the Flow Approach
I have heard of another approach to life, one that does not require brute force and is not bound by the limits of my imagination: go with the flow.* This approach is intriguing to me; it is so antithetical to how I live. It is not fear-based and involves more ease and possibilities, all of which sound very appealing.
I theoretically understand the concept of going with the flow, and in certain situations I can see how one would do it, but 99% of the time I don’t have any idea what the flow is or how to go with it. When I’ve tried to practice going with the flow, I don’t really know what to do. I keep searching for a blueprint or set of instructions. From what I’ve gathered, going with the flow involves sitting back, seeing what shows up, and not resisting it because it’s not something else.
There is so much in that sentence that feels impossible to me. “Sitting back and seeing what shows up.” That sounds hard, scary, and frankly, a little irresponsible. Until recently, I was under the impression that we were supposed to be able to control life. I am always mucking around in it, fiddling with the controls, trying to make it do something specific that I need it to do. So sitting back and seeing what happens feels uncomfortably passive.
My other serious challenge is the “not resisting it” piece. I don’t even understand what the flow is or how to find it much less have any idea about how to not resist it. What does it actually mean to “go with” something? That feels like doing nothing. In my mind, there’s “be controlling” or “be passive.” Those are the two options. I only see how things need to be and what I need to do to force them to get there. I don’t see any other paths to take.
So how does a brain like mine get from anxious and controlling to going with the flow? Naturally, I’ve got a 5-step plan.
Step 1: Identify the Flow
First, let’s figure out what the flow is. What is it that I am trying to go with? This is one of those that took me a ridiculously long time to figure out even though it’s right in front of my nose. The flow is what is happening right now, both internally and external to you. The flow is life. The flow might involve the weather becoming gray and rainy on the morning of your big hike with gorgeous views. The flow might involve your interest in this article as you continue to read it. The flow is life, and although you are always in it, there are moments when you decide to jump into the current and swim with it in a particular direction (just checking – does everyone else picture the flow as a smallish river?).
Step 2: Notice the Flow
The flow – life – is always happening, but we can’t do anything deliberate with it if we don’t notice it. Noticing the flow can be tricky if you’re not used to having distance from it. I have to remind myself to sit back and observe life. This requires being in the present moment. Notice your feelings, thoughts, mood, bodily sensations, other people, and your environment. Notice just what is happening in this moment. The flow is what’s happening, not your thoughts, feelings, or judgments about it. It can be hard to separate them.
Step 3: Be Open to the Flow (aka: Stop Judging the Flow)
I have historically had a habit of resisting anything unexpected in life. If something didn’t happen as I thought it should, I judged it as “bad” or “wrong.” I’d feel stuck and frustrated. I had been operating from the assumption that how I expect life to go is the only valid way it could go, and that my plans were the best course of action.
It has recently come to my attention that I am not in charge of life. I’ve come to realize that it’s not just me making all the calls. I’m in a partnership with life. Life happens as it will, regardless of my expectations, preparations, and even my brute-force efforts. As hard as I try, I am not in total control. I have to meet life where it’s at. This is the essence of going with the flow.
Once I realize that life is not supposed to be what I expect it to be, I can drop the judgment. I can meet it where it is, which means being open to whatever it brings. Life could (and has) bring me some really wonderful, interesting stuff that I wouldn’t have thought to plan for or expect. The more open I am, the more of that stuff I will notice and have access to. The trick is to be curious instead of rigid, judgmental, or apprehensive.
Step 4: Look for Opportunities in the Flow
The mindset shift from, “It must be this way.” to “Ooooh, I wonder what’s coming around the bend?” is key for going with the flow. Rigid expectations and judgment come from closed minds. Curiosity opens the mind and, in this case, directs it to look for opportunities in the flow.
Rigid expectations cause us to miss a lot of opportunities. Because we are only looking for one very specific thing, we don’t notice all the other things floating by. If our attitude is judgmental, we see “problems” instead of “opportunities.” My brute-forcing approach is causing me to miss a lot.
“Opportunities” are essentially the moments in life that catch your eye and you want to see where they take you. You see something interesting in those moments, and you want to explore them. You might see an opportunity to respond to change with ease instead of resistance. You might see an opportunity to be flexible. You might see an opportunity to connect to what’s happening in a particular way. You might see an opportunity to learn something or try something new. It turns out that life brings all kinds of opportunities if we are open to them. It also helps if we’re looking for them.
Step 5: Take Opportunities
Once I see those moments of possibility – the opportunities – the next step is to take them. Decide how you are going to approach this moment and move with it. This is the actual “going with” part. Go with what shows up, in a way that works for you. It is a creative, active approach. It requires flexibility and paying attention both to what’s happening and to what you want. You do not have a passive role in going with the flow. You’re not in charge, but you have influence. Life gives you the clay and it’s up to you to do something with it. You can be annoyed that it’s not already sculpted and perfect, or you can get interested in what you can make with it.
For anxious brains to be willing to swim with the unexpected parts of the flow, it helps to have reassurance that there will be non-disastrous results. This is where you have some influence. You can be thoughtful about how you want to approach the interesting moments (did you see how I cleverly reframed “unexpected” into “interesting”?). Why do you want to go with the flow? Are you looking for more ease? Are you looking for opportunities to align with your values more often? Are you looking for interesting moments you couldn’t have conjured? Are you trying to thrive?
Yes, to all of the above! When I take opportunities to actively engage with life as it is in this moment, I am going with the flow. After all that, that’s all it is. It feels more connected and fulfilling that way. When I am focused on what I don’t have or how things “should be,” I am not going with the flow. I feel less connected and fulfilled.
So, if I were reading this article and noticed that my attention was drifting and I wasn’t really into it, I could go with that. I would close the article and look around and notice what was pulling my attention. I might find another article about Ayurvedic massage that was compelling, and I would notice that excitement bubbled up as I read that article. I would go with that excitement and schedule an Ayurvedic massage. This is going with the flow. What started out as a boring article turned into a novel, exciting experience to look forward to. Unexpectedly.
If I were planning an epic hike with gorgeous views and I woke up to rainy and overcast skies, my default reaction would be to feel frustrated and resentful that life was not doing what I wanted it to do. I don’t like hiking in the pouring rain. If I were focused on going with the flow, I would notice that this is a moment to do something different.
Instead of focusing on being frustrated, I could focus on what else would feel good today. I might decide to do part of the hike because I would still get the time in nature. I might decide to cozy up on the couch with a movie. Whatever I do, my attitude wouldn’t include frustration and resentment, and it would be easier to stay on the lookout for the next opportunity.
So, there you have it. My 5-Step guide to Going with the Flow. It’s more than loosening the grip on control or even having an open mind toward the present moment. It’s deciding where and how you want to dive in. Life is fluid and constantly changing. Opportunities of all kinds show up in all kinds of guises. Take some of them and keep watching what happens. Keep watching the flow and decide where you want to go next.
On this topic, I am no expert. I do not have much-lived experience in going with the flow. If you do, I’d love to hear your tips and suggestions in the comments!
*I am not speaking of the specific psychological concept of “flow” in this article. The “flow” I am discussing here is more general.