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Stacy Igel, founder and creative director of the fashion brand Boy Meets Girl, was backstage at a Manhattan fashion show she’d produced for her Just Dance collaboration when she got the news that her first in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment had failed. “I just dropped to my knees,” she recalls.
Igel had already spent more than a year trying to get pregnant, and she was starting to fear it might never happen. All the while, her business was booming, and her stress levels were at an all-time high.
“I was doing these big New York fashion-week shows. I was traveling the world,” she explains. “I still had to be a face of my brand, be present, and be an employer to my employees, but I was also getting hormone shots every morning.”
In that moment backstage, Igel knew that she could let the panic and uncertainty take control — or she could make another choice: prevent the stress from becoming despair, and instead, lean into the chaos and use it as fuel.
The strategy proved powerful. As she writes in Embracing the Calm in the Chaos, it benefited Igel in both her business and personal life. As she experienced the challenges of her pregnancy journey and continued to grow as an entrepreneur, Igel found support and a new sense of confidence.
“What really helped me were the partnerships and collaborations and friendships I already had,” she says.
Let Go of Control
With the pandemic upending lives and plans in recent years, many of us have been forced to confront uncertain futures. That not-knowing can be stressful. Seeking wisdom from others, as Igel did, can help us face such uncertainties.
It’s also helpful to recognize that we actually don’t have that much power over what happens to us in the first place. In 1975, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, PhD, first studied the “illusion of control.”
Since then, Langer and others have found that “people trying to obtain a desired outcome that occurred independently of their behavior tended to believe that they were controlling it.”
This occurs even when people have no actual influence over the outcome, because we all have a human tendency to overestimate our ability to control what’s going on around us.
But acknowledging our lack of influence over chaotic events — whether it’s an unsuccessful IVF treatment, career plans that go off track, or finding out your kid’s favorite summer camp is no longer taking applications — can actually be liberating.
When we cede control, we may become less attached to the outcome. When we’re less attached to an outcome, we’re more accepting of what happens. (For more suggestions on finding calm in a frantic world, see “24 Ways to Find Calm in a Frantic World.”)
Each of us defines chaos — a disordered state that appears out of control — in our own way. But for all of us, becoming comfortable with the fact that we actually exert much less control over events than we think we do could allow us to cope more effectively with life’s many messes.
With that in mind, we’ve gathered advice from experts on more ways to navigate chaos and how to find your own moments of calm.
Practice Emotional Agility
Life happens, and sometimes the chips fall in ways we don’t want, like, or expect. But what often matters more than the events themselves is our reaction to them, explains Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David, PhD, in her book Emotional Agility.
“Our life satisfaction in the face of inevitable worries, regrets, and sad experiences depends not so much on how many of these things we experience, or even their intensity, but on the way we deal with them,” she writes.
Practicing “emotional agility” can help us handle chaos in productive ways. There are four main steps to developing that kind of flexibility.
1) Show Up
Instead of ignoring challenging emotions or forcing yourself to “think positive,” learn to approach your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors with curiosity and kindness. David also suggests broadening your emotional vocabulary: “Once you’ve identified your feeling, come up with two more words that describe how you are feeling. You might be surprised at the breadth of your emotions — or that you’ve unearthed a deeper emotion buried beneath the more obvious one.”
2) Step Out
Create distance between yourself and your thoughts, and understand that emotions are data, not directives. Your feelings, in other words, are not facts. Step out of the struggle against your emotions and, instead, notice how processing them as they are can be empowering.
One way to add distance linguistically is to focus on the feeling: Rather than saying, “I am angry, sad, etc.,” say, “I am feeling angry, sad, etc.” That way, you are not the emotion; rather, you are experiencing it.
3) Walk Your Why
Core values can serve as a compass to keep you moving in the right direction. Journaling is a good way to discover your core values.
In his book Chaotic Happiness: The Psychology of Finding Yourself in a World That’s Lost, therapist T. J. Hoegh, MS, LPC, suggests writing about times in your life when you’ve been disappointed or proud of yourself. “It’s likely that your feelings of pride or disappointment in the past are closely linked to things you value,” he writes.
4) Move On
You’re the agent of your own life, David notes, and while you can’t control what’s happening around you, you are in charge of your reaction to it. Breathing exercises can help put some space between an action and your response to it, and they can help you be mindful in your exchanges with others.
Ditch the Perfectionism
Perfectionists often judge themselves harshly, which can spike anxiety and make any chaotic situation even worse. Vijayeta Sinh, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Mount Sinai in New York City, writes in a blog on PsychologyToday.com that the problem of perfectionism is further compounded by isolation. “Others may assume based on appearances that we are OK and doing just fine,” Sinh states. “So there are fewer opportunities to receive help or support.”
And, she adds, it’s possible to even fool yourself: “We may work so hard at creating the illusion of OK-ness that we may actually buy it ourselves from time to time. As a precaution, it’s important to take our emotional temperature and ask how we are doing, if we are feeling overwhelmed.”
Instead, practice being imperfect. You can start with a small step, like leaving your bed unmade for a day. What would happen? Or at dinnertime, how about serving a nutritious meal that isn’t the most Instagrammable?
That’s what Sinh did. “For me as a working mom, the food I serve may not always look and taste fantastic, but it’s healthy. I may not always be able to spend quality time with my family, but when I do, I stay away from my phone and other distractions. I no longer take pride in saying, ‘I can do this and this and this all at the same time.’”
Sinh worried that her kids may resent the store-bought birthday cake and wish for a homemade one, for example, or that her family would be annoyed by an occasional mess in the house. “But,” she writes, “I am always surprised that no one really seems to care about those things. That acknowledging my vulnerability, facing my insecurities, and knowing my priorities — most days — helps me feel more human and less like a robot.”
And it sounds a lot less chaotic.
This article originally appeared as “Embrace Chaos” in the July/August 2023 issue of Experience Life.