Issues of Loss of Control can be very central for fearful flyers, especially those in senior positions
I’ve cited Loss of Control as one of the core issues some fearful flyers present with. Almost by definition, this group has made their own attempts to overcome this aspect of their fears – perhaps increasing their frequency of flying, reading and watching YouTube videos about flying, going to Google University (a humorous way of saying consulting Google search results) and perhaps asking airline friends for guidance.
Almost to a person, these patients are employed in positions of leadership and significant responsibility. They are very self-directed, and usually decide how their day goes, occasionally “micromanaging” activities of their employees. In a sense, they are quite used to things going their way, and see their achievements not as examples of good luck, but the outcome of hard work and laser focus.
A few days before I created this post, a very good example written by Jane Howze appeared in the media, from a website in Houston, Texas. (See below)
Here’s what the author, a management consultant writes about Loss of Control:
Fear of flying has little to do with logic or reason. I doubt that there is anyone with this phobia who doesn’t understand that flying is the safest form of transportation. Fear of flying is more complex than it would appear because it encompasses fear of heights, closed-in places (claustrophobia), crashing and fear of death; and perhaps one of the biggest fears for us Type A’s —loss of control.
You don’t read much about executives who are afraid of flying, in part because it can’t be good for their career. My guess is executives may be even more prone to fear of flying because they are used to being in control. With flying they are not in control of the pilots, air traffic control, the plane, mechanics or really, anything.
I must say that while I am now a little older than the average psychologist (she’s about 45), my years of experience working with senior executives is an important asset compared to their consulting a much younger 30 year old psychologist.
Let’s take a look at the writer’s last sentence, because this is the crux of the situation. She writes:
With flying (executives) are not in control of the pilots, air traffic control, the plane, mechanics or really, anything.
Leaving aside the last part of the sentence “really, anything” which I’ll come back to shortly, Jane is correct: She’s not in control of those things others take for granted when it comes to commercial aviation. She’s also not in control of various laws of physics, aerodynamics, fluid dynamics, metallurgy and so on. Where “control freaks”, as executives often refer to themselves, make mistakes is in their demand to control the minutae of life – theirs and others – when in fact, there is only so much control one can exert on one’s own destiny, much less that of others.
If I am onboard a flight with you, I don’t want you in the flight deck or in the cabin or in the engineering workshop, exerting your control over whatever you think requires your hands-on supervising. I want you in your seat, having boarded and then taken control of you saying to yourself:
“I’m not in control of what this plane does for the duration of the flight, and that’s OK. I chose to be on this aircraft. I’ll take control of when to decide I no longer need to control what is outside of my control. That feels very uncomfortable, and goes against the grain, but I can live with it.”
Let’s return to the part where Jane says she can’t control anything, and unpack it.
Ways to best manage issues around Loss of Control
What is important is to identify what she can control, and let go what she can’t or need not, in order to have a safe, manageable flight. Not just does she need to learn how to entrust others with her safety, she needs to entrust herself to look after herself with the attendant skills this requires. I include self-compassion in this skill set, for as much as such people can be harsh on others, they can be their own harshest critics
So once on board (whether in F, C or Y class) Jane needs to cocoon herself with what she will need to self-manage for the flight’s duration: reading materials, entertainment, food and water (in addition to what the airline supplies), and dress in a way to maintain comfort.
These are things in her control, and my general advice to anyone who flies, especially for long durations, is to expect nothing from the airline except safe arrival. Anything else that happens on board which will affect you directly, you can plan for, and thus give yourself a sense of control.
But more important will be staying in control of your own self-talk, behaviours and emotions when things do not go according to your preferences, such as: an ontime departure and arrival, a menu of your liking, a smooth flight, an amiable seat companion, pleasant and courteous cabin crew, and onboard power should you choose to work or entertain yourself.
When these elements don’t appear, it’s up to each passenger to work through their disappointment and grievances, and accept that humans are fallible. It’s not personal. Do not allow your upsettedness to make it personal.
(Have a read of psychiatrist’s Maria Yang’s blog entry from April, 2015 to see what I mean:
In summary, many people who rise to the top of their professions are self-starters with complex personal attributes which do not play well with the commercial aviation environment with its routines, rituals, unknown complexities and people beyond reach that make it all come together.
These high achievers in the main have been employed for their knowledge and abilities, and sometimes this means – for your own safety – you need to go one down and listen, then do. I know – it feels very unfamiliar and ego dystonic (Jargon for “it’s not how I usually do things”).
Perhaps you pull in 10 or 20 times the cabin crews’ combined annual wages, but in the case of commercial aviation, the crew has specific training to save your ass should the circumstances arise!
Respect them, let them do their job, and where possible, express your appreciation with a smile or a thank you. In the service industry, it goes a long way.
Before boarding, plan what you can control (especially your own thoughts and behaviours), and push away any perceived need to control those things irrelevant to your well being, or which are not in your purview to control – leave that to the professionals.
A few more thoughts about Control Issues
The Acute Experience: It can be lonely at the top, as the cliche tells us. People both respect and fear you, there is a clear power differential where those around you will not tell you directly that they disagree with you or your strategies, and others just one rung down the corporate ladder circle await with anticipation each quarterly release of sales figures.
Slip ups, and crises of confidence can result in significant impacts on people and profit, so allowing others to direct your path feels unnatural. This can come together quite mischievously on board a commercial plane.
For some executives (and I’m also going to include Directors of Home Duties in this category, especially with a couple of under-5s at foot), the demand for control can reach new and impactful levels acutely. This is a quite different situation compared to someone who has always lived and worked this way and yet it is not intrusive when it comes to flying. When it’s acute, it can be time to pause and reflect on what else is going on to take you away from your comfort zone. How is it that your usual ways of flying or handling duties is now producing anxiety or disenchantment?
I’m reminded of the Australian golfer, Greg Norman, who at the peak of his career went through an astonishing sequence of losses at the highest tournament level. Commentators talked openly of him “choking” or suffering the “yips”, which likely didn’t help. Golf is a game of mental skills once one gets to a certain level of physical proficiency (as is professional tennis).
Norman returned at one stage to his coach and mentor, the late Norman von Nida who took him back to his golfing roots, that of stroke making and putting.
It can be worthwhile for those at the highest managememt levels to return to their previous mentors or trainers when they reach a professional crossroads which can be experienced as an excess fear of loss of control. The late Steve Jobs, founder and twice CEO of Apple, was known to do this, most famously spending time with the founder of Polaroid, Edwin Land.
The life long fear of loss of control, and out of the box suggestions
Some people in their therapy sessions will describe the fear of loss of control as a life long experience, a core schemata for engaging with life. Most times, they can live with it, even using this fear to strive for perfectionism, so it has benefits. But they also know it can come at a personal cost, including intimate relationships and of course flying and driving with others.
These patients are well advised to restore their curiosity about what happens when they fail or go back to being a beginner, or inexpert at some activity. For them, it can require a constant and steady set of reminders that “not knowing” is OK, despite the discomfort it produces. For them, I advise even later in life to take up a new vocation, hobby or pastime. It can be creative and humanistic such as painting, photography or writing; it can be physical such as a new sport, or it can be completely “out of character” such as taking up magic routines, juggling, singing, standup comedy, or learning a new language.
The important part is the outcome is not as important as the feelings of growing from incompetence to competence during the training or learning period. It ought not be competitive for the sake of winning, but more as a gauge of improvement. For some, a counter phobic activity like taking a flying lesson at a municipal airport (without the purpose of obtaining a license) can be useful.
And for some, giving back can also become a useful tool, becoming a mentor to others not in the same company or even the same business where trade secrets or insider knowledge is not central to the mentor-mentee relationship.
There are no shortage of studies which suggests mentors have much to gain spending time with young, energised and curious mentees. This can bring the mentor to reflect on their own experience, and give oneself a refreshing stance from which to operate.