You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Angry

hulk

Recently I’ve heard leaders speaking some version of this sentiment:  “For some reason, I get angry sometimes, and I just lash out. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

If you can relate to this sentiment, I want to assure you that nothing is wrong or even strange about you. The strong burst of anger that seems to transform an ordinarily reasonable, kind, gentle person (Bruce Banner) into a single-minded destructive presence (Hulk) is relatively common human experience. It’s why we can feel sympathy for Bruce.

We all try not to go there, but anger is human. To be more accurate, anger ismammalian. You’re a mammal, so you qualify.

Some years ago, a young woman working in my office said to me, “I’d love to see you angry sometime.”  I’m sure she wouldn’t.

Anger has varying degrees, so we don’t always turn into Hulk. You might be peeved, irritated, frustrated, or just generally hostile. But when your response to provocation tips into irate, livid, or furious, then we’ve got a Hulk on our hands.

In common psychological parlance, your fight response (as opposed to flight orfreeze) has been triggered. In the language of Emotional Intelligence writer Daniel Goleman, you are experiencing an amygdala hijack:

…the amygdala triggers the HPA (hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal) axis and hijacks the rational brain…. When the amygdala perceives a threat, it can lead that person to react irrationally and destructively. – (from the Wikipedia entry on Amygdala hijack)

The amygdala is part of your limbic system, which is in charge of sorting through everything you are seeing, hearing, and experiencing, and deciding if it’s something you should run away from or attack. It is part of your mammalian brain. You also have a lizard brain, which keeps you above the water and out of a fire, and you have a “human brain,” the neocortex, which can think up the Pythagorean Theorem or remember who starred in the original Jurassic Park movie.

You can see that dogs and cats and other mammals have similar anger responses. In response to a threat, there is a reaction designed to protect the organism (person or animal) from that threat. So when you are provoked, you react. You bark, you hiss, and you say that exact thing that will hurt the other person most.

So why do you do it? You’re wired that way. We all are.

Good news: This is universal experience.

More good news: You don’t have to settle for this.

What can you do if this is happening with enough regularity that it’s a problem?

Listen to where the anger is coming from.

The reason our amygdala triggers the ‘fight’ response is because something in our experience tells that part of the brain that fighting back is important. The threat is being perceived as real. So it helps to find out what is making the stimulus (situation, person) seem so threatening?

If you are experiencing frequent amygdala hijacks, you might reflect on the iceberg of conflict while considering that provoking stimulus.  The iceberg helps you to “drill down” into the different drivers of conflict, and when you understand what you arereally upset about, you can make better decisions to address those issues when you aren’t upset. Here are the layers:

  • issues (above the surface)
  • personalities
  • emotions
  • interests, needs and desires
  • self-perceptions and self-esteem
  • hidden expectations
  • unresolved issues from the past

Each layer down is a more powerful driver of strong emotion than what sits above. Those self-perceptions can drive a lot of my conflicts, especially if I think someone has questioned something at the heart of who I believe myself to be. Knowing that, I can take action to practice and develop confidence talking about myself and my sense of identity.

Develop your mental “muscle” so you can slow down your reaction time.

Meditation is one of the most common (and scientifically proven) practices for developing the mental strength to slow down reaction time. By developing your brain’s awareness of itself, you can notice when your amygdala has been hijacked and intervene in some way before you do damage. Counting to ten, taking deep belly breaths, or reciting the seven dwarves are all techniques that can help you to get enough distance from the stimulus that you don’t lash out. But you have to notice what’s happening, first.

If you are experiencing someone else’s amygdala hijack, the above works for you, too. Because the first thing we want to do when we are attacked is to attack back (or freeze, or flee). Take those deep breaths yourself, and count to ten while giving yourself compassion that this is a difficult situation.

Take care of yourself so you have better resilience in a challenging situation.

This might mean getting enough sleep, exercise and proper nutrition so your body is functioning properly, and taking time for yourself to play, create, and rest. Brene Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection offers lots of great practices for developing resilience.

As you build these skills, give yourself time to make the adjustment, but that doesn’t mean you sit back and wait. During that time you have to be working and investing attention in the new skills before they can take hold. Just ask this guy who managed to unlearn how to ride a bike.

If you experience an amygdala hijack (your own or someone else’s) in the coming days, take a moment to remind yourself: This is common human experience, and it takes an amazing amount of time and effort to make a change.

And that time and effort is worth it.

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Career Leadership Alignment LLC offers coaching for leaders to increase their capacity for complexity and change.

Amy Kay Watson is a specialist in leadership development as well as cultural and personal transformation. Working with thousands of professionals across North America, Amy has helped individuals and companies re-think organizational culture while implementing effective change. She focuses on conscious leadership, culture, and employee engagement.

Amy works with leaders to increase their self-awareness and intervene effectively in their systems. She creates the time and space they need to reflect on and learn from their experience. Sign up for the weekly newsletter (including each week’s blog post along with related articles and other content) here. Connect with Amy on Facebook,Twitter, and learn more at the Career Leadership Alignment website.

When everything becomes difficult: falling down the bottomless hole

falling-into-a-black-hole by Aisha (ashscrapyard.wordpress.com)

If you (or a friend or coworker) are struggling or suffering, you are not alone. A feeling of being ‘in the hole,’ feeling like everything is just too hard, or feeling like nobody cares can strike without warning. There is a way out.

That image of a pit comes up frequently in creative expressions of human struggle:

KublerRoller

I was introduced to this image about two years ago as I prepared to offer leadership development training to a local congregation’s board. I learned that all of the experiences on the downslope (shock, mourning, guilt, loss, detachment) are emotional experiences. These are reactions to a change, initially welcome or not.

One such experience of change happened for me at work. We were moving from a paper-based system to an electronic system. At first I was excited about all of the paper we would be saving, and our ability to simply “run a search” to find what was needed and where it was in the process at any time–even from home.

A few months into the project I told someone that I felt like I was “sliding backwards downhill in the dark.” I had gone from feeling like I knew how to do my job to feeling completely incompetent. The system was far less intuitive than I’d hoped, and so “running a search” was much more challenging than I’d expected. Rather than everything being closer to hand, everything felt buried, hidden, lost. I felt lost.

Fortunately, into this ‘pit of despair’ materialized a toolkit for understanding change. It was as if a friend jumped into the hole with me and said, “Don’t worry. I’ve been here before, and I know the way out.”

The emotional cycle of change was part of that toolkit, and just having that image in mind has been helpful for me. Sometimes I’ll find myself feeling overwhelmed and stuck–which can last for a few hours or a few days–and then I’ll remember the emotional cycle of change, which offers a map for how I got in (something changed, and I’m having a understandable/normal reaction to that change) and a path for how I will get out.

For me, the path back out is not emotional reactivity, but acknowledgement, validating, recognition, and accountable choice. At the fulcrum in the above graphic is “DECISION,” but I believe that just before that decision comes empathy, as described by Brené Brown.

This has been an important insight for me. Empathy is that friend jumping into the hole with you. That’s a metaphor for feeling what you are feeling. That friend taps into their own experience to say, “I’ve been here before.”

I believe empathy is what helps us find the bottom of the hole. Without empathy, we keep falling. The hole is bottomless.

Brené Brown believes this is always a social experience. I’m not 100% sure about that. I have had the experience for myself of finding the bottom on my own through self-empathy. If I realize “I’ve been here before,” that can be enough. It’s Chapter Three in the Autobiography in Five Short Chapters:

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it there.
I still fall in… it’s a habit… but,
my eyes are open.
I know where I am.

With my eyes open, I find my feet, and that helps me start finding the path out.

I offer these thoughts for two reasons:

One, you might be in the hole right now, and I want you to know you aren’t alone. You have lots of company, in fact, whether or not they are talking to you right now. Also, the pit does have a bottom, and you can get out, and you’ll probably be in there again. You’ve maybe been there before. if so, take a moment to assess–what is familiar? What is new? Did you experience a change which triggered your slide? And, finally, don’t be in too much of a rush to get out. It’s painful to be in the hole, but you are still okay. This happens.

Two, you might know someone who is in the hole. Perhaps they’ve been stuck in the hole a long time and you want them to be out. This desire for them to be out of the hole is understandable. It’s caring. It shows you want the best for them, and being in the pit is obviously not the best. However, they will not get out on the merits of advice or benefits or purpose or even problem-solving.  They need, first, to be understood. Do what you can to spend some time on their side, seeing the world from their perspective, to where you can simply say, “I’ve felt like that. I get it.” Resist the temptation to follow that with “but, you gotta get going with xyz.”

They’ll get there. You will. We will.

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Career Leadership Alignment LLC offers coaching for people to have the impact they want to have.  When you align your true best self with your actions, you make the best possible impact.

Amy Kay Watson is a specialist in leadership development as well as cultural and personal transformation. Working with thousands of professionals across North America, Amy has helped individuals and companies re-think organizational culture while implementing effective change. She focuses on management, culture, employee engagement, customer relations, and work-life balance.

Amy works with leaders to increase their self-awareness and make the adjustments they need to align their best selves with their decisions and actions. She creates the time and space they need to reflect on and learn from their experience. Connect with Amy on Facebook, Twitter, and learn more at the Career Leadership Alignment website.

Been Making Mistakes?

stumble

It has been a rough week. I’m far enough into this “building my own business” thing that I’m deep into learning-curve-mistakes territory. It’s tempting to be hard on myself for making mistakes.

Fortunately, I know that the first steps in a new role can be awkward, full of missteps. The learning curve might be steep, and the stumbles that come along the way can result in scraped knees and egos.

How can we survive this treacherous landscape? Here are some of the things I’m trying to do:

1. Recognize that this is part of the process. Just because we stumble doesn’t mean we can’t do it. It just means we haven’t developed all the skills and knowledge that we’ll need to do it well. We have to keep going in order to develop those skills and knowledge. Don’t give up in the middle of the learning curve. Ross Perot said, “Most people give up just when they’re about to achieve success. They quit on the one yard line. They give up at the last minute of the game one foot from a winning touchdown.” Don’t let that be you. Remember most people who’ve experienced tremendous success got there by failing.

2. Continually ask yourself, “What am I learning? What should I do differently next time?” Make note of those learnings and give yourself credit for the knowledge you are developing! Mistakes and failure are the form that lessons take in adulthood, the longest stretch of your life, and the time when the tests come *before* the lessons, not after.

3. Make the adjustments that need to be made and keep moving. Once you’ve learned the lesson, don’t stay stuck in regret. The only value in learning, “I shouldn’t have done that,” comes with actually changing your approach. Don’t stop or give up–get back in there and capitalize on what you’re learning.

I once worked with a software consultant who camped out in my office while my workgroup was beta-testing our new document management system. Every time I experienced a problem with the software, I’d call him over and complain, but instead of getting defensive he always responded with fascination and glee. “Cool!” Why on earth was he so excited? Because we’d actually found a problem he could fix while he was there. I was giving him a chance to do his job. If everything had gone swimmingly, he would have been bored.

If everything in your life were easy all the time, you would eventually get bored. We need challenges and a little stress to stay engaged and interested. Of course most of us know that challenge and stress can become too much, and that’s when we have to slow down, recognize that we’re still learning, and give ourselves credit for what we’re learning. And then we have to change course and move on.

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 Career Leadership Alignment LLC offers coaching for people to have the impact they want to have.  When you align your true best self with your actions, you make the best possible impact.

Amy Kay Watson is a specialist in leadership development as well as cultural and personal transformation. Working with thousands of professionals across North America, Amy has helped individuals and companies re-think organizational culture while implementing effective change. She focuses on management, culture, employee engagement, customer relations, and work-life balance.

Amy works with leaders to increase their self-awareness and make the adjustments they need to align their best selves with their decisions and actions. She creates the time and space they need to reflect on and learn from their experience. Connect with Amy on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

There’s your problem

Digging deep by BC Transportation Dept

Is the obvious solution wasting your time? Get to the roots of the problem to gain leverage.

A few years back The Simpsons lampooned an experience many of us have had. In “The Great Money Caper,” a sturgeon falls from the sky onto the hood of the family car, crushing it like a can.  When Homer takes it to the garage, the mechanic gives it a thorough looking over before declaring, “Well, there’s your problem. You’ve got a sturgeon on your hood.”

Been there? You describe a problem and someone points at the most obvious issue, declaring, “There’s your problem.” Thanks, Captain Obvious.

This is so human, though. We are problem solvers, and most of us can’t bear to be exposed to a problem without immediately offering a solution. Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner, authors of the Freakonomics books, urge us to get over that habit: “rather than address… root causes, we often spend billions of dollars treating the symptoms and are left to grimace when the problem remains… [You] should work terribly hard to identify and attack the root cause of problems” (Think Like a Freak, 2014).

They aren’t kidding about it being terribly hard work to find those root causes. It takes patience and a break from our usual habit of pointing out solutions.

Last night I facilitated a book discussion about Dubner & Levitt’s Think Like A Freak, and at times I offered examples of problems to which we could apply a principle from the book (dig for the roots, challenge the question, design an incentive but anticipate that it might not work, teach your garden to weed itself). No matter what we were trying to practice, the first thing folks had to do was offer solutions.

Digging deeper to get to the roots is so challenging that I’ve found it helpful to lean on something called the Systems Thinking Iceberg.  This is my favourite version:

Systems Thinking Iceberg

This one comes from Peter Senge’s book The Necessary Revolution. Take a hard look at the image.  You’ll notice that at the top are the obvious events–that’s your sturgeon on the hood. Just beneath the surface are patterns–events that repeat with some regularity (sturgeons that keep falling). Dig a little deeper and you get to structures (open-cargo airplanes?). These structures explain why that pattern is recurring, because they are essentially directing and shaping the pattern. Dig a little deeper and you get to mental models–the ways in which people think. (“Open cargo airplanes save time and money!”) Mental models are about worldview, values, and beliefs.

Here’s another silly example designed to help you see how the theory works:

  • You see a Model T drive down a city street. That’s an event. You might react to the event. “Hey, look at that car! I haven’t seen one of those in 20 years!”
  • Over time you notice several cars from the 20s, 30s, and 40s driving down the street. That’s a pattern.  The Systems Thinking Iceberg then tells us that what you can do if you identify a pattern is anticipate what will happen: more cars from the early 20th century will be driving down this street. Because you can predict the pattern, you might call Aunt Martha to join you on the balcony to see the cool parade of cars.
  • You eventually ask yourself, “Why are all of these old cars around?”  The cars are rare. Their bodies rust and their parts are difficult and expensive to replace. If everyone is now driving old cars we might start to have problems. So you start thinking about what structures might be in place to explain the pattern. Acting on a hunch, you check for local events and discover a vintage car show in town.  If you are a car enthusiast you might decide to create your own car shows so you can increase your own and others’ chances of seeing them–designing structures to change behaviors.
  • Finally, if you do begin designing these events and encounter resistance among the car owners, you might have to find out more about their mental models. What has persuaded them to drive across the country for a car show before? What do they care about? How do they think? In order to successfully sponsor a new show, you might have to transform your own assumptions and understanding about what’s behind the shows and what it takes to make one happen.

Therefore, as we dig down into the iceberg we find more and more leverage for changing things. We get down to the roots of the problem, as Levitt and Dubner might say, so we can understand the thinking that drives the creation of the structures that shapes the patterns that cause the events.

If you are dealing with a stuck problem, then, take some time with it and study it with the help of the Systems Thinking Iceberg. Ask others for their ideas so you can get outside your own blind spots. Work terribly hard–because in the long run, you’ll save yourself the time and energy it has been costing you to deal with all those darned sturgeons that keep falling from the sky and crushing your car.

Don’t Wanna Work

Cranky Buttercup by sharyn morrow (flickr)

Do you ever feel a deep-seated resistance to work? Some say we Americans live to work rather than work to live, but what about those days when your body and psyche rebel? I offer here a few things to consider so you can do a quick inventory and find a way to get going again.

Inertia

Why it might be happening: On certain days of the week we call it “The Mondays” because of those previous two days in which we got to relax, kick back, and enjoy ourselves. If your weekends (on whatever days they may be) are sedentary, with feet propped up in front of the TV or with a book, then motivating yourself on your next day back can be extra hard.

Something to try: We learn Newton’s laws in high school physics class or a helpful documentary along the way, including this one: a body at rest tends to stay at rest, and a body in motion tends to stay in motion. A couple of years ago a helpful pharmaceutical commercial emphasized just how much this applies to human bodies as well as bodies in space.  With this in mind, the remedy comes into focus: One way to stop having “a case of the Mondays” with such predictable regularity is to increase your activity over the weekend. Sports, DIY projects, volunteering, or other active past-times with family or friends can keep you engaged with life and moving forward with purpose, so by the time Monday rolls around you can actually feel refreshed and energized instead of motionless.

“Employee Disengagement”

Why it might be happening: The Gallup Organization has identified twelve reasons why people lose engagement at work. When these start to falter, our interest in our work falters along with it. Take a look at the Gallup Q12 and ask yourself how you would respond to those statements. They can point you in the direction of what needs your attention in order for you to re-engage.

Something to try:  After you review the Q12 list, identify the items that seem important to you. Some of them may feel like they are out of your control, such as “In the last seven days I have received recognition or praise.…”  However, if you truly feel that this is what you need to re-engage, look for opportunities to make that happen for yourself.  This takes creativity and some emotional fortitude, but basically you just have to ask–and maybe ask a lot.

If it’s something you really can’t influence (“the mission of my company makes me feel my job is important”), make a note of that for something you might need to make a change around.

Feeling unworthy

Why it might be happening: Sometimes we disengage to protect ourselves from feelings of unworthiness, which can be overwhelming.  This can happen to anyone, and it strikes in a variety of circumstances. I’ve listed just a few below:

  • New job or career;
  • Lost a job;
  • New role in the same group of people;
  • Performance reviews;
  • A harsh comment;
  • The people you care most about don’t acknowledge how important something is to you.

There are so many more.

This feeling of unworthiness can go by many names, including impostor syndrome, shame, nerves, or anxiety. If we don’t have a name for what we’re feeling, it might manifest as a hollow or wired feeling, jealousy, intense pain that gets channeled into anger or makes us withdraw, or feeling “down” or tired.

Something to try:  If this section is resonating for you, you can actually take some action to heal. The research done by Brené Brown on wholeheartedness and vulnerability offers some guidelines to learn and put into action:

  1. Recognize what you are feeling and name it. Acknowledge the pain it is causing.
  2. Recognize that it comes from believing messages that suggest you aren’t worthy. Those messages may be coming from sources you trust, but they aren’t realistic or correct.  You are allowed to choose not to believe it.
  3. Find someone to talk to, but choose this person carefully. Select someone who has earned the right to hear your stories by listening with empathy. They don’t try to fix it for you, but can just listen and understand how you feel about it.

Just as it takes wisdom to find the right person to talk to, it also takes courage to talk about these feelings. But talking about them–simply sharing the story with an empathetic listener–transforms the story from an episode that separates you from others into an experience that connects you with someone else.

Knowledge is power. We need each other, and we also need to recognize our opportunities to act on our own behalf. If you find it hard to get going–whether it’s a Monday, a Wednesday, or a Friday–do a quick inventory. Have you being going slower and slower instead of keeping up an active pace? What does the Gallup Q12 suggest to you might be going on? Or, are you believing messages that suggest you aren’t worthy of belonging?

If you take some steps to take care of your own needs–including reaching out to ask for what you need from others–you can return to a more engaged, productive, and enjoyable life.  What is one thing you can do for yourself today?

Edited To Add: This week a friend pointed out an element missing from this list: Perfectionism. Perhaps this comes under the heading of feeling worthless, but I think it’s more associated with fear. When we procrastinate, it’s frequently because we’re afraid of doing a poor job. For myself, I’ve learned that it helps to seek feedback from someone who isn’t caught up in my fears. What works for you?

What’s holding you back

Fear of heights

The difference between dreaming and achieving is frequently the way a person thinks and talks about themselves. If you are on the road to nowhere, get back on the right path with a little time and effort.

A few years ago I was telling myself (and everyone else) a story about what was holding me back from success at work: “My boss is so picky!”

That story obscured two important truths:

  1. Who my boss actually is as a person.
  2. Why I am seeing the behaviors I interpret as a preference for pickiness.

For the short time I worked under that supervisor, I struggled with “her” expectations for perfection. Over time, however, I slowly let go of the story about her pickiness and started to realize two new truths:

  1. There were important reasons for a perfect finished product in that office, and a series of protocols designed to help the flawed humans in the office create a perfect finished product.
  2. I was capable of developing familiarity with those protocols and could help create those perfect finished products, even though I would never be perfect all by myself.

Only after my story changed was I able to accept first one promotion and then another.

We hold ourselves back in many ways, and one of the most important of these is how we think and talk about ourselves. We might say, “I’m not a creative person,” “I don’t like parties,” “I hate math,” “I’m a multitasker, and my job requires it,” or simply, “It’ll never work.”

Turn up your self-awareness

To find out if your stories are holding your back, turn up your self awareness by listening closely to yourself and the people around you, and by recording your thoughts in a journal.  Listen to the themes in what you tell people about yourself. How do you respond to invitations? To assignments? To change? Notice the phrases that come up frequently.

Listen to how others describe you, too, and what happens with those stories. If a friend jokingly refers to you as a “clutz,” how do you feel? Are you more accident prone when you’re with her? Have you internalized that description of yourself so now you describe yourself that way to others? Where did it begin? Such stories can have a chicken-and-egg quality, but that doesn’t mean we can’t change them.

Make a list of the stories you are telling yourself and look at them closely

As you become aware of the stories you tell about yourself, record them. Once they  have been written down, it’s much easier to distance yourself from them so you canquestion them and start thinking differently.

The Work of Byron Katie builds on this principle. She recommends we ask the following questions about our self-limiting stories and beliefs:

  1. Is it true? (Yes or no. If no, move to 3.)
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true? (Yes or no.)
  3. How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?
  4. Who would you be without the thought?

Translate the story into feelings and needs.

The process of translating these limiting stories into feelings can be extremely useful because we usually know what we “should” do, but we hold ourselves back because we haven’t worked through the feelings associated with the situation. When you have identified your needs, ways of getting those needs met become clearer.

Warning: It’s usually easier to name thoughts than feelings. To help avoid this trap, use a list of feeling words like this one. You might be able to identify your needs on your own, but I find a list of those can be very helpful as well.  I suggest one like this.

Choose a new course of action and a new story

Our stories become our behavior. My story about my “picky boss” kept my attention on blaming her instead of on me and developing my skills.

Take time to ask yourself (or write in a journal about) these questions:

  1. What do you do–what actions do you take, even in your own mind–when you believe the story you have been telling?
  2. What results do you get when you believe the story?
  3. What’s another way to tell your story?
  4. How would you behave if you believed the new story?
  5. What results can you anticipate?

Changing the story might mean changing just one word or even starting from scratch. Instead of “My job requires me to multitask,”  “My job demands multitasking” can open up a crack of possibility: The job is demanding, but many things and people are demanding. I don’t have to give into every demand.Or, if someone says, “I’m not a creative person,” they can change that to “I haven’t felt creative in the past.” Possibilities open up for experimenting with creativity now.

Experiment

This last step is about trying out a new story and the new behaviors that go with it. Experiment with how it feels to change the story, going into it with the mind of an investigator. Design an experiment.

For example: Let’s say you have decided to stop telling the story about how depressed you are and instead are going to tell a story about feeling grateful. You don’t want to go around fibbing, so you decide to start your new story by keeping a gratitude journal and starting each day with a list of five things you’re grateful for. “I’m not in a hospital. I can walk. I can speak. The toilet actually flushed. My cat is alive.”

Then you decide that, when people ask you “How are you,” you will recite any two of these along with the phrase, “I am grateful.” At the end of each day you will return to your gratitude journal to record your feelings about the day with a moodmeasurement on a scale of 1-10, and notice (with your metaphorical lab coat on) what happens to the numbers over time.

This experimental design has some important elements: 1. Practicing new behavior (recording gratitude points, reciting specifics, saying the words “I am grateful”), 2. Noticing/naming feelings, and 3. measuring the result so you have as objective an indicator as possible to show a shift over time.

Listening closely to our stories and taking the time to question them may seem like an incredible investment of time, but it’s what some call “slowing down to speed up.” It takes effort to get yourself off a path leading nowhere and onto a path where you are actually moving toward the realization of your goals. It’s worth it.

If you feel disappointed and confused about where life has gotten you so far, listen to what you are telling people (and what you’re telling yourself).  What could happen if you changed the story?

6 ways to support a positive mood

Image by Kate Ter Haar at Flickr
Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a harder battle. ~Plato

I spent the last six years working with groups and teams to become more aware of the quality of their thinking, and one of the tools we used for increasing awareness of thinking is simply noticing our moods.

Take a moment to consider: When you are at your best, how do you feel? For me, I can be relaxed, confident, and just really enjoy people. Most of us tend to agree we feel pretty good when we are at our best. Take it the next step: When you’re feeling pretty good like that, what’s happening with your results? Do you tend to get better or worse results when you’re feeling good? Most of us find we get better results on those days.

Consider further: When you are not at your best (you know those days when it seems like you got up on the wrong side of the bed?), how do you feel? I get anxious, irritated, cranky. Most folks tend to agree that when they aren’t at their best, they don’t feel so great, either. Our moods tend to be unpleasant on those days, and our results are right in there with them. I become downright slothful and grasping, and it shows in my results.

However, we can’t just flip a switch to be in a good mood. I don’t know about you, but when someone tells me to “be happy,” I sometimes want to sock them in the jaw. So if we can’t just “be happy,” what can we do?

I have found that it helps to have a list of options–different strategies to draw on that, over time or in the moment, can support a positive mood.  Here’s my list:

1. Have fun, and don’t take it too seriously.  I heard this advice through Jeff Bridges, who said it’s what his mother always used to tell him.  It resonated for me because I do tend to take things awfully seriously, and yet I know I don’t have to. Sometimes “it” is me–I take myself, my opinions, and my plans too seriously. Do you do this, too? Let’s let that go. Laugh it off.  Own your own crazy.

2. Name what you’re grateful for.  I used to hate it when folks would suggest I count my blessings, “because I haven’t got one.”  But I’ve learned over time that we do have a lot to be grateful for if we just practice noticing them.  As humans we are wired to notice problems and try to solve them, but we can be too aware of our problems and become overwhelmed by them.  At times like that, we need to take a step back and realize everything that’s actually working well.  Can I breathe without a machine? Check. Can I walk without a brace or prosthetic limb? Check. Do I have a job and an income? Check. Am I suddenly planning a funeral for a loved one? Thank God, no.  Am I filling out insurance forms for my house that was just destroyed by [name natural disaster here]? Thank God, no.  Can I see anything that is beautiful? Wow… there’s gobs of it right here in front of me.  But you have to take time to name it.  Develop a practice. It doesn’t happen by default for most of us.

3. Express what you appreciate in others.  This is the exact same practice as #2 above, but for the people in your life. And you don’t just name it to yourself, you name it to them.  Are people annoying? Sure. But we don’t have to focus on what’s wrong with other people. (You can’t change them anyway. No, really. You can’t change them!)  Focus on what’s positive about them. What horrible stuff aren’t they doing? Have they done anything to take care of themselves or others? Probably.  There are so many wonderful things in other people that we can miss if we aren’t looking for them, or if we’re expecting some example of perfection. Find the spark and communicate about it.

4. Give yourself credit for who you are and what you do.  Part of what’s so challenging about recognizing the spark in others is that we aren’t practiced in noticing the spark in ourselves.  We focus on our weaknesses, our failings, our mistakes, our illness. We spend our time feeling sorry for ourselves instead of realizing that we’ve survived, we’ve grown, and we’ve made some danged good decisions!  Everyone makes mistakes, and every life has illness, but we need to cultivate awareness of our being on the right track. Start at a baseline of degradation and recognize how much better you are than that! Hey, if you’re reading this, you have intelligence, education, and wisdom that a lot of people don’t have. Recognize it, claim it, and give yourself credit.  There’s a lot of harm that comes from failing to do that.

5. Let go of disappointments and wishes for a different life.  Wish you lived in Jane Austen’s England? Wish your big brother was Wolverine? Wish your boss was Jean-Luc Picard? Okay, these are fun fantasies, but they’re only fun as long as we let them be fun.  As soon as we start believing that we SHOULD feel the way Elizabeth Bennett felt about Darcy, we SHOULD be able to slash our enemies to little bits when they snarl at us, and our boss SHOULD be wise and humble and curious instead of what is… those expectations can kill us.  “The way to dissolve our resistance to life is to meet it face to face.  Cutting our expectations for a cure is a gift we can give ourselves.” (Pema Chodron)

6. Exercise, sleep, take your vitamins, meditate, and give of yourself to others.  I went to the doctor a few months back with a respiratory infection that I just couldn’t shake, and I felt so out of options.  I’d taken every OTC medication I could think of and nothing seemed to work. At my wit’s end, I asked my doctor, “What should I do? Please advise me,” I asked. “Even if you think it’s painfully obvious. I’m in the woods and can’t see the step in front of me.”  She thought for a moment and said, “Chicken soup.”  Oh, right.  Don’t forget or skip the basics.  They’re the foundation.   We screw ourselves up when we miss them.

What about you? Do you have additional ways to take care of yourself and support your own positive mood? What are they?

Image Credit: Kate Ter Haar