Saturday, 5 May 2012

Take back control

You're running late. It's chucking it down with rain and you have a really important meeting. The trains are all delayed by some kind of wrong leaf or snow variety on the line. You'll take the car. The car won't work. Bum.

How do you feel?

What about this one:

You've got to go visit your mother in law to help with some chores. It's a beautiful sunny day, you've got a new book you'd like to read and a nice bottle of wine in the fridge. You really can't be bothered to go. But off you go out the house to drive over there anyway. But the car won't start. Excellent, you'll have to cancel. Shame.

Now how do you feel? probably quite different to the first example!

I think this tells us three things.

1. Our external 'problems' are in fact not really the problem at all.  It's the unpleasant feelings we attach to the external event that is the real the 2nd example, no unpleasant feelings, car breaking is therefore not actually a problem. The real problem was in our head.

2. The context or the 'frame' is crucial

3. Put both together and we see that really we have the ability to choose how we react to the external situation. We can choose not to experience unpleasant feelings to the car breaking down, we can choose to reframe it, we can decide to not let it be a problem.

I know in the first example the car breaking seems like more of a problem than the second, but that's only because of how we've framed it in our heads. The mother in law might not agree. And anyway, is it really the end of the world if we're not at the meeting? Is there a bus?

Our brains are pre-programmed to hone in and magnify the negative, it's true, but we don't have to be a slave to that. Once we realise that our choices are much wider.

In fact, our brains are reframing all the time without us realising it.  For example, read the following:

Billy was on the way to school.


She was worried about the maths lesson


She wasn't sure she could control the class again today


It wasn't really the dinner lady's job!

What did you notice? Did you have to keep flipping the image or story you had conjured up in your head as you read on? Did a little boy trotting down the street flip to a girl? and then a maths teacher? before resting on the dinner lady?

We conjure stuff up in our heads all the time. Nothing is as it is, it is only as we see it. So choose to see problems differently and they can stop being problems at all.

In fact we can choose to see them as opportunities, to solve something or work on some part of ourself or discover something new...if we want to.

In the example earlier, maybe the car breaking on that morning was a sign for us to take our foot off a bit at work, to slow down a bit, to realise the world won't stop just because we're not at one meeting. Or to point out that walking to work wont do us any harm...or whatever.

The point is there are always other ways of looking at it, other perspectives.

I know this sounds trite, daft, bloody obvious and all sorts of other things, but when I started to get a grip on this one, it made a whole world of difference. A previous post about my laptop breaking is a good example...that wasn't really a problem at all. It got fixed, for free, I just had to use a different computer for a few weeks. Big deal. Another is the torrential rain this week. Pain in the proverbials. Or is it? Alex always says there's no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothing. So I bought some wellies and a hooded poncho. The rain has been reframed and is no longer a problem.  Actually it's quite fun now.

Clearly it's not always that easy, mind. But it's a start isn't it?

It's true it is very hard to change the way we feel, but it tends to be what we're thinking that leads to how we're feeling and with practice we can change that.  Just like we can train our muscles if we keep practising our exercises, we can do the same with our minds.

There are more types of 'unpleasant' feeling than I care to think about right now, sadness, fear, injustice etc. But if you boil them all right down, they probably all come back to anger in one form or another and anger is a particularly unpleasant, unhealthy place to be.

We can normally tell when anger is approaching. Maybe we start tensing up, our breathing quickens, we can feel our blood starting to boil.  At that point, rather than leap head first into that feeling and let all hell break loose, we can take a deep breath, take a step back, ask ourselves if there's another way of looking at this.  

It's a bit like the advice about never replying to an annoying email straight away, in the heat of the moment. You're always advised to go away from it and come back again when you've calmed down before you press send. So, next time you're about to react in a big fact angry old way to something, walk away and regroup a little before you press send on those messages from your brain to the rest of your body.

I remember when I first tried to do this.

There was a girl at work who always got my back up. I found her rude and unpleasant and she always made me feel totally idiotic and insignificant which in turn made me act totally idiotic in her presence. (Of course I now realise it was me making myself feel like that in her presence for some reason and nothing to do with her at all).
One day I did some work for her. I spent ages doing it, put a load of effort in, pulled out all the stops and made sure she had it ahead of schedule.  She didn't respond. Since it was for an important meeting I wanted to make sure she actually had it so I approached her to ask if she'd seen it.  Before I'd even finished asking the question she snapped at me that she'd decided not to use it and with an obnoxious flick of her hand dismissed me.
I trundled off.  I started to feel all sorts of different things. Indignant, embarrassed, pathetic, annoyed, upset....angry.  How dare she? Why had I bothered?  What's the point etc.

But then, remembering the lessons I'd been reading about, I forced myself to consider if there were any other ways of thinking about this. It then struck me that actually, she was probably just super super busy and stressed, about to go into this horrible meeting.  She was in the middle of rehearsing what she was going to say and the MD had probably just changed everything at the last minute, including whether or not to include the thing I'd written. The printer was probably broken for a change too.  Suddenly I just felt sorry for her and relieved I didn't have to go into the meeting myself.  I sent her a little good luck vibe instead of the daggers I'd be gearing up for.

Ten minutes later she came over, apologised for being such a grump, said thank you for my work which was just what she'd wanted and was so brilliant they were making it into a standalone thing to send along afterwards and was I around later to discuss.

Ha! I had read the original dismissal totally wrong but luckily had reigned myself in enough to be able to respond politely when she came back over.

I can remember feeling quite shocked that the whole reframing thing had actually worked and all that time I'd be going around in a mood with her when I could just have got over it instead. It was totally up to me.

My mum always says, if you have a problem with somebody, it's your problem, not theirs. It's up to you to do something about it, not them.  It's true.  We need to take responsibility not just for our problems, but for how we react to them. Change that, problem solved.

To be fair, there are times you might just really want to be in a mood at something, it's quite therapeutic sometimes isn't it? Well that's fine long as that's a choice you're making, as long as you're in control of that...just know you do have a choice, and you can take back control.

1 comment:

  1. Oh I love this!! I'm going to try it the next time I get pissed off with something! x


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