It started innocently enough. A co-worker asked me for a recommendation. I don’t take writing recommendations lightly, since I want them to be sincere and it takes time to write them. But I felt that I could honestly recommend her, so I took some time writing one and sent it to her.
Yet instead of a simple “thank you”, I received a request to fix an error in the recommendation. My initial reaction was defensive – I didn’t think I made an error! As I researched the “mistake”, I found that there were 2 ways to write this particular phrase, and both were considered acceptable. Part of me wanted to write back and point out that there were 2 acceptable versions of the phrase, and in a way prove that what I had written was “right.” At the same time, I noticed that I was feeling pretty upset about this simple incident, which made me curious about my strong reaction. Why was I so upset?
How do you deal with your everyday thoughts and emotions, especially when they are unpleasant? Do you put them to the side to get on with things? Or do you stew over them, spending time reviewing and obsessing over them?
I recently read “Emotional Agility” by Dr. Susan David, and she explains that the way we navigate our inner world is the single most important determinant of our life success. The key is to neither ignore difficult emotions and thoughts nor to obsess over them, but to hold them loosely with acceptance and compassion, so you can move through them and thrive in your life and career.
I hear stories from friends and clients all the time about how they get hooked by a self-defeating emotion, thought or behavior. This gets triggered by something that happens in our everyday life: It could be a piece of feedback we receive from a co-worker that feels like criticism, a partner coming home late from work – again, a driver cutting you off in traffic, your child not cleaning up their room, a difficult message you need to deliver, or your lunch date not showing up.
What happens next is often an autopilot response to the situation: You might get defensive, admonish the other person, shut down to avoid your feelings, procrastinate, or start cursing. This is a sign that you are hooked – your mind is acting in default mode.
Most of us have two default modes of dealing with unpleasant emotions: The first mode is to bottle them, shoving them aside so that we don’t have to feel them. The problem is that we never get to the root of what is causing the emotion. Plus eventually, the suppressed emotion is likely to surface in unexpected ways.
The second mode is to brood over the emotion, obsessing over a hurt, a perceived shortcoming or an anxiety. When we brood, we are inevitably increasing the intensity of the emotion, as it picks up more and more energy each time we think about it.
So how do we get out of this auto-pilot behavior? Dr. Davis suggests showing up and stepping out:
I. Show Up
There are two ways we can face our thoughts and emotions effectively: With acceptance and with self-compassion.
It sounds like a paradox, but until we accept what is right now, we cannot change ourselves or our circumstances. As long as we are refusing to accept reality, we are not able to deal with the situation and move forward. We remain stuck. For tips on practicing acceptance, see: Get Unstuck Through Acceptance
Self-compassion. allows us to move beyond our Inner Critic who may be stirring up negative thoughts and beliefs. People who have more self-compassion are less likely to procrastinate, more likely to re-engage with goals after facing setbacks, and more willing to receive and act on feedback. It has even shown to lead to more success in dieting. For more info, see: Self-Judgment or Self-Compassion
II. Step Out
Next, we need to detach from our thoughts and emotions, to see them for what they are. A few techniques for stepping out are:
1. Practicing Mindfulness. Some great ideas for practicing are:
– Simple and slow breathing,
– Mindfully observing your immediate environment as if you are seeing it for the first time
– Picking a routine like washing dishes and really remain present, focusing on the sights, texture and smells.
– Selecting a piece of music and really listening as if you are hearing music for the first time.
2. Having a laugh
3. Changing your point of view and considering the problem from the perspective of someone else
4. Calling it out: Identify the thought or emotion. I am having the thought that…. I am having the emotion that….
So when I felt my unpleasant emotion come up after receiving the request to fix my error, I stopped myself and got very curious. What was this emotion I was feeling? What thoughts was I having that were causing this emotion?
I was feeling criticized – and unjustly so. I was being told that I was wrong, when I thought I was right. I didn’t feel appreciated, after putting in time and effort to do someone a favor.
I found that calling out emotions is very helpful – and writing them down is even more powerful.
I decided to take self-responsibility for my emotions and thoughts. My initial reaction might have been to blame the person who was doing something to cause my emotions and thoughts, but I reminded myself that it was me who was generating them. There is something about what the other person did or said that was really bothering me. Understanding why it was bothering me really helped me make sense of my reaction.
I could now be compassionate with myself – it’s ok if someone thinks that I did something incorrectly. And I could see the situation from the other person’s perspective who only wanted to make sure that there was no mistake – it didn’t mean that she was looking for reasons to criticize me or to be ungrateful.
So I decided to just rewrite the phrase the way she had requested and move on and be at peace. And yes, I can laugh now about how silly the whole thing was. It always seems like such a bigger deal when you are in it. 😊
How are you dealing with unwanted thoughts and emotions? What is one way you would like to show up or step out more?
Manuela loves helping smart and compassionate professionals create a career and life they love, while feeling more confident and fulfilled! You can visit Manuela’s Website for Success Life and Career Coaching.