When you’re a kid you assume that all of the weird quirks you have are shared by all of the people in your life. For me, one of those weird quirks is surprises. I hate them. Just thinking about them makes my skin crawl, my heart race, causing that heightened anxiety that I also get while talking to cashiers or ordering food on the phone. I’m sure I’ve always hated them; I think it relates to the anxiety of feeling unprepared, or like everyone knows something you don’t, but I can also think of a childhood experience that it may have stemmed from.
At my 10th birthday party my friends stole my pizza. I know that sounds really weird, and about as funny as it felt when I came back downstairs to see everyone starring at me and snickering. They all knew something I didn’t know and they were all laughing at me. I didn’t know what was wrong, or what they were laughing at, which made it worse. I kept asking and no one would reply, eventually someone said “where’d your pizza go?”. I asked them to give it back, and everyone kept laughing so I started to cry. That overwhelmed, everyone is surrounding you, expecting you to do something, anxiety-ridden crying. They felt bad, they got my pizza (they hid it in the next room), and they said I was silly for crying, it was just a joke (clearly trying to cover their asses). I can’t remember what happened after that, or how the rest of the party went, but I still relate my hatred of surprises, and my need to know what’s going on in a situation, or to never be out of the loop, to that fateful day.
In writing this article, as I do most articles, I googled “surprises” and “anxiety” to see what comes up, what’s been written before, and if there are any studies on what I’m writing about. In researching I encountered a profession I have never heard of before – a surprisologist. Now, I have only really been able to find the one surprisologist (and her group), Tania Luna, who quite literally wrote the book on surprises (www.surpriseindustries.com). Tania, who says that she was plagued by surprise-anxiety as a kid ended up turning her life around, surprising herself, when she met her now husband who encouraged her to move faster in their relationship and go out of her comfort zone. She doesn’t seem to be encouraging the surprises that would make me anxious, the big reveals, or the feeling that everyone around you knows something you don’t, but rather the little surprises in life. She encourages people in their day-to-day life to not look at the synopsis for the show you’re going to watch, go out to dinner with that friend of a friend, or not skip to the last page of the book. While all of these things heighten my anxiety and do take me out of my comfort zone I have learned over time that the small joys you get from not ruining these little surprises is worth the stress to get there.
So I agree with Tania’s mantra – the importance of letting unpredictability into your life, but are big surprises really necessary? Or are there the few, the anxious of us, where the relief of knowing what’s about to happen in a stressful situation is the best gift you can give us. The other thing I encountered while trying to find an article on how surprises can affect anxiety is that most of the articles are lists explaining how to help anxious people (yourself or a friend or family member) deal with anxiety, and one example was frequently – don’t surprise them. Don’t take someone out of their comfort zone. And I think that’s the key piece of the puzzle and maybe the reason why I can’t find much literature on the science of surprises, because everyone, even the the anxious people, have different comfort zones. Most people have a few comfort zones, some that are more comfortable than others, and some that are easier to leave than others. Usually people, particularly high-anxiety people, have levels they’re willing to reach and good days and bad days when it’s easiest to reach them.
So my advice for you, as someone who hates surprises – 1) Sometimes you can’t avoid them, 2) Sometimes they’re worth the anxiety (a proposal, christmas, or even just running into old friends), and 3) Sometimes you’re allowed to avoid them. Nobody likes everything, you’re not the only weirdo who hates surprise parties cause I’m there too. But telling your friends that surprises make you want to claw your eyes out (eww I know gross visual), is probably a lot better for you, and them, than melting down because someone hid your slice of pizza.
Tania Luna – Surprisologist (www.surpriseindustries.com)
One of her TED talks on Surprisology (https://vimeo.com/43876682)