How Travel Got Me to Finally Let go of Being a Control Freak

I’ve had meltdowns at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Conniption fits in the snowy streets of Amsterdam. Battles of will with my husband in international airports.

Hello, my name is Susan, and I used to be a terrible traveler.

It all begins with my incessant need to have everything go my way. Control freak. Type A. Anal. Whatever you want to call it, that was how I lived for most of my life. Then I started traveling, and those skills really came in handy, or so I thought. I’d spend weeks researching every place I wanted my family to go, using Google Earth to check out the neighborhood we would stay in, and making spreadsheets to organize all my OCD information.

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The problem was, once we got there, nothing went the way I’d planned. Our delayed flight would cause us to miss our next flight at the layover. We’d get lost on our way to one of my meticulously-planned activities. I’d get sick as a dog from eating snails in Barcelona and spend the night in a dehydrated fugue, ready to curl up and die.

I should have gotten the memo years ago. After dating only three months, my then-boyfriend-now-husband threatened to leave me in Paris because I was whining so much. I can’t remember what I was peeved at specifically, but it was probably something like my wanting him to visit yet another long-dead author’s home and him (logically) refusing.

The Turning Point

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It wasn’t until I got serious about travel writing that I knew I had to change how I traveled. I was making the people around me miserable with my need to control every situation, and I wasn’t any happier. If I wanted to build a career around travel, I’d have to reduce the stress it was causing.

Earlier this year, we started planning a 5-week trip to Provence. My husband already knew what to expect. We’d worked out a metaphor to help me deal with my need to control, and he used it then:

“So…you ready to let me drive this trip?”

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Provence Changed it all

Letting me drive was our code for me to metaphorically hand over the keys and sit in the passenger seat quietly while he navigated us through airports, customs, and general travel. Whenever I was able to hand over those invisible keys, I found myself enjoying travel more. Still, it took this conversation to really shake me into changing.

Me: “Yea, sure, that’s fine. Totally cool.”

My 10-year-old son chimed in, “You don’t want it to be like the time you cried at the Eiffel Tower, Mama.”

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And suddenly, I saw myself through their eyes. Fierce. Angry. Unable to let serendipity just wash over me and enjoy the experience. I didn’t want my son growing up regretting every trip he took with me, and I wanted there to be many trips. I didn’t want my husband to leave the hotel room under the guise of buying groceries just to get away from my ranting. I wanted to be a person who was pleasant to travel with.

In addition to being a control freak, I’m also willful. So as soon as I decided I needed to make some serious changes in how I traveled, I set to work on them. I named my controlling self Uptight Ursula. I spent time understanding what motivated her, and why she felt like she needed to have things go her way. I understood I didn’t need her, and in fact, would be happier without her. So I locked her up and threw away the key. Sure, it was a silly visualizing exercise, but it worked.

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As anyone knows, changing ingrained habits (especially bad ones) is pretty challenging, so I won’t say that I was an angel in Provence. But it was a lot more fun.

When we got lost, I opened my eyes to see where we ended up. It was often better than where we’d planned to go. When I was hungry, I let my husband choose the restaurant. I’d ask my son what he wanted to do. We all got to experience the Provence we were interested in, and we shared those experiences.

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I didn’t get a medal for my good behavior from my family when we got home, but the real reward was finally letting go and finding a way to let travel happen to me, rather than molding it to fit what I wanted.

I now understand travel better. The reason I travel is to experience the unfamiliar. Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but if I wanted comfort, I could stay home and save a hell of a lot of money. Travel requires being flexible and open to whatever comes, and I finally get that. When I try to control my experience, I limit it, and I don’t see a destination for what it is: a magical slice of life in another place.

About the Author

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When Susan Payton isn’t running her marketing company, she’s traveling and writing about it on The Unexplorer. She’s written several books (business, as well as travel) and has been published on Forbes, Mashable and other sites. Follow her on Twitter: @unxplorer, Instagram: @unxplorer, or Facebook.


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