Call me cruel, but I kind of love it when friends are dealing with stressful work situations and call me seeking advice.
It’s not that I relish their pain — it’s that their freakout is a prime opportunity for me to flaunt my own rationality and problem-solving abilities. As in, why don’t you ask your boss for clarification on the project deadline? Or, don’t take their criticism so personally and just get the job done.
But I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret: I’m only good at coming up with solutions when the problem isn’t mine. As soon as I’m the one overwhelmed or confused, that levelheadedness is replaced by face-palming and hand-wringing and dialling up friends and family for emergency consultations.
I take it I’m not the only one with this blindspot. When I met recently with Susan David, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School and the author of “Emotional Agility,” she explained that people often find it difficult to separate themselves from their thoughts and emotions. The result is getting tangled in a web of stress from which it can look like there’s no escape.
But David, who’s consulted organisations including Ernst and Young and the United Nations, has an elegant solution to this problem that involves creating some distance from your thoughts and feelings.
Step 1: Think of someone you really respect. Maybe it’s your favourite business leader or a colleague.
Step 2: If that person were going through this situation, what would you advise them?
“It sounds so simplistic, but it is remarkable how, when it’s about me and you’re asking me what I should do, I’m like, ‘I’ve got no idea; I’ve got no idea.’ But it’s like, OK, Jack’s going through this situation and there’s Jack, what are you going to advise them?
“Suddenly the person kind of frees themselves up and they come up with all these remarkable solutions because what they have done is they have changed perspective.”
Another, similar exercise David uses with clients is referring to yourself in the third person. Again, the idea is to create some distance between you and your thoughts, and recognising that your thoughts aren’t necessarily reality.
When you say, “I’m stressed,” David said, “you and the emotion are one and the same.”
But when you say, “‘What should Susan do in this situation where she’s giving this big talk and she’s feeling stressed,’ suddenly it’s like, ‘oh OK, I’ve got to practice more or I’ve got to make friends with people in the audience so I’ve got someone to connect with.'”
“Suddenly you’re kind of moving yourself from this space where you’re seeing the world from the perspective of your thoughts and emotions to being able to notice them for what they are,” she said.
David’s ideas are rooted in mindfulness, or the ability to pay attention to thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations without judging them. In the book, she explains that mindfulness is partially about seeing the world through multiple perspectives.
Ultimately, it helps to remember that there is almost always a solution to the problem you’re facing — it’s just a matter of getting out of your own way so you you can see it.
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