There is a movie called, The Lady in the Water, by M. Night Shamalon. It didn’t get rave reviews, but I enjoyed it. That’s not really the point though. In the movie, there was a character, who had worked out only one side of his body; half his body looked like a body builder and the other half was a normal guy size. He was physically out of balance. And, while most of us don’t wear our imbalance so obviously, we play out our imbalance in how we interact with the people around us and the world in general.
In the past few weeks I have been talking with people about their negative versus positive focus.
We humans are hardwired for survival. Noticing what is odd, dangerous, out of place, etc, is a survival strategy. As we scan the world with our senses, it’s nice when we notice the pretty flowers, but when we can notice the tiger in the tall grass, it helps us survive. Even though the skill is a crucial survival skill, the wiring can create its own set of issues. All the focus gets turned on what isn’t working, what we don’t like, how bad we feel, where the problems are, what’s wrong. Then the imbalance pitches toward the negative. This lopsided perspective isn’t realistic, any more than only seeing only the positive is realistic.
This week when I was walking out to my car, I tripped. Not a big splatter type of trip, but a drop all my stuff and end up on my knees type of trip. “I am so clumsy!” “I am the clumsiest person!” In that moment I wasn’t thinking, “I take about 5000-10,000 steps a day, over the average month I take 150,000+ steps, and I tripped once.” People rarely focus on the 150,000 good steps, but will instead create a laser focus on the one bad step. Does that really make sense? I am not saying go to some perfect Pollyanna extreme the other direction, what I am saying is that we need to work on using the muscles on both sides of the situation.
How much of our self-esteem and our internal conversations are colored with this same negative laser focus?
It is really hard to shift our focus to something neutral when we’re in the middle of something that’s maybe pissing us off painful. As we’re in the middle of whatever the situation is, we chew it around and around, gnawing at all the bad parts. If I’ve gotten into an argument with my husband, and he did something that bugged me or hurt my feelings, in that moment it’s very easy to focus on solely what is upsetting. The negative laser focus doesn’t help me think of all the times he’s been supportive, thoughtful, or caring. It doesn’t remind me of the times he’s rubbed my feet or listened to my feelings. In fact it doesn’t remind me of anything good at all. At that point, my negative focus isn’t the whole truth. At the point my focus is lasered on something negative, I’m missing out on the whole other side of the truth. So, in order to challenge the negative focus I have a couple of ideas to share with you.
First – Take time before responding; wait to see how you feel in about 2-24 hours. Take a walk, take a bath, read a book, talk to a friend. Not every situation is a crisis just because we feel the pressure to try and resolve it instantly. This first step is really about doing no harm until you can have clarity and work towards having a good conversation. It is the shift from being Reactive to being Proactive.
Second – While you’re waiting, giving yourself some breathing room from the issue, start remembering all the positive things about this person you’re upset with. Is this a person who has been good to you? Have they helped you in other areas? Have they supported you in the past? Do you care about them? Do you love them? Create a thorough list of all the things you like about that person. Maybe you don’t like them, but you need them because they’re your boss, or in-law, or a co-worker. You don’t need to make up anything; just really notice an honest reflection of who they are and try to find something that you can appreciate about them. It’s an interesting thing, but we treat people differently based on how we think of them, the label of friend or foe makes all the difference.
Pay attention to your feelings. Feelings offer you a place to discover the deeper issues that may be affecting the relationship or situation. If you regularly find yourself feeling a negative feeling with your partner or friend or anyone, you may need to pay attention to what that feeling is trying to tell you. There are often deeper issues at work. Do you feel like you are being rejected or that you are not good enough the way you are? (Acceptance) Are you feeling controlled or manipulated to do something or be different? (Power and Control) Maybe you are feeling taken for granted or feeling like your hard work isn’t appreciated? (Recognition) Is there a sense of being criticized or treated with contempt? (Respect) The deeper emotion may have to do with trust, not feeling like someone will follow through with agreements. Or, are you being challenged in your views of yourself? (Integrity) In intimate relationships we may struggle with “Do you love me?” (Love) and “Do you want to be here?” (Commitment) These deeper issues will never be resolved arguing about whose fault it is that the dishes didn’t get done, or any other superficial problem. It’s only when we understand what’s getting triggered that the important conversations can happen. The more important the relationship is, the more carefully we need to handle the conversation. Through years of relationship work, I have found that if you are feeling some of these deeper issues, so is your partner, be it an intimate relationship or a work relationship.
Fourth – Make sure to listen to hear and understand. Often times we listen for ammo. This is not real listening; this is a form of war. Unfortunately, winning a war of words with someone, means you lose something else, like their respect or help or love. There is always our side of the story, but there is also their side of the story. Listening is a two way street. If you have something to say, make sure you are also doing what you ask of them; listen. Listening and agreement are two very different things. You don’t have to agree with their side of the story, but try and put yourself in their shoes, if only for a moment. Look for what their intention was; if their intention was not to hurt your feelings, remember that.
Fifth – When you’re ready to actually talk to the person, try to come from a place of only talking about your feelings. Feelings are very difficult to argue with because they’re yours. I have seen “I” statements that are actually convoluted “You” statements. “I feel like your are a jerk.” These don’t work. If you focus on what you don’t like about someone else’s behavior, you run the risk of either shutting the other person down, or you will turn up the volume on their defensiveness. We are masters at triggering other peoples’ defenses, especially in long relationships and in hard conversations. Recognize that in every conversation there is intent and impact. The closer these are aligned, the better the conversation will go. Start important conversations softly to keep the dialog useful.
One of the super secrets in life is that emotions are not good or bad, but rather they are like road signs; they tell you something. When we learn to read our own emotions, it helps us know ourselves better and hopefully get to know other people better too. The goal is to shift the story from imbalanced to I’m Balanced!