At the beginning of this week, I felt under a lot of pressure with far more items on my to-do list than could reasonably be accomplished in the time scale. This induced in me an overwhelming feeling of dread because I didn’t believe I could knock anything off the list, so I was faced with a choice about what was to get my immediate attention. Two priorities, both or equal importance, were facing off in a mental showdown. The argument which went on in my head went something like... ‘if you don’t do this, you will feel like that’ and ‘but if you do that you will feel like this’. Back and forth the internal debate ensued, a pointless process that consumed a few hours which, retrospectively, could have been used more productively on either of the matters in hand.
It’s common for people to have such conflicting commitments, desires and goals – like spending time with family versus working or like trying to lose weight and slipping by eating a doughnut. We can’t do everything, and it’s inevitable there will be clashes which must be met with compromise and acceptance. These are the things which we negotiate consciously and subconsciously every day.
It is also something we forget. On reflection, in this instance there was precious little acceptance and equally less compromise. Stuck solution-less in the no man’s land of indecision, I recall berating myself mercilessly. It didn’t matter what I sacrificed, compromised or capitulated; I was going to disappoint myself. In fact, ‘disappoint’ is too mild a word as this was much more brutal self-criticism, blame, blame, blame - completely over the top for a simple case of over committing and having too high expectations.
So, here I was, supposedly spectating at a tennis match, wearing a hair shirt, chewing my nails and exhaling all too loud sounds. Of course, I wasn’t really watching the match...I was simply in attendance and my sighs were less about the anticipation of play and more in response to the serious match being played in my head. This is what was consuming me. One thought served up after another only to receive a blistering backhanded return. Endless rallies of the to and fro of personal thoughts. Not in the moment, my love for tennis forgotten, I was fully absorbed in my anguish, getting nowhere near a solution and ruminating in negative emotions which I knew would turn toxic.
Eventually I put on my coaching hat and asked myself if I had a client presenting a scenario like this, what would I do? Easy. I would go to great pains to try and get them to gain perspective and objectivity by reducing the emotion and mental turmoil. I would have challenged the abusive and unhelpful thoughts, by asking questions such as ‘What purpose are these thoughts serving?’ ‘How is that thought helpful?’ ‘What other thoughts and actions will be more productive in this situation?’ I would encourage injecting positivity into the situation knowing that the chances of solving problems in a positive state is much easier than a negative mindset. I would also tell them to watch the bloody tennis match as that’s why they are there!
One thing which I have learned (and subconsciously forget) is that self-criticism, much like regret, is rarely a catalyst for good performance. Sure, it might spur a knee-jerk reaction but for the most part it delivers very few positive results. Whilst the inner self-critic may be a normal part of life, when it is extreme and misplaced it just adds to that dark place of depression and anxiety. I have coaching clients who justly their tough inner critic by saying “I have to be tough on myself, otherwise” ...or “this is what drives me and got me to where I am today”. In such instances I challenge them to ask how much further they may have got with positivity and kindness?
It is well documented through research that negative emotions like fear, anxiety, disappointment stress and anger narrow our focus, inhibit our concentration and decrease our cognitive abilities, while positive emotions can do the opposite. When we are upbeat and happy, the chances are more likely of having an inclusive focus and performing better on demanding tasks than in a pessimistic frame of mind where our prefrontal cortex, the brain’s ‘executive centre’, is pushed aside so the emotionally-driven amygdala can take over and ready the body for crisis.
Another simple yet profound lesson I have learned is to say, ‘stop it’. Stop the negative thinking, stop the rumination and stop the thinking pattern, yet just as in this instance, I can be slow to respond and press the stop button. Like many, I can continue to make same mistakes time and again, slipping back into a downward spiral or unhelpful cycle which I know is not good for us. I may be a Positive Psychologist, but I am human, and self-mastery is a never-ending journey. The ideal I guess is when we learn to master ourselves by getting out of our own way. We strip away what we are not to realise who and what we really are, actualising ourselves in the process. Alexander Pope said, “No one should be ashamed to admit they are wrong’, which can be interpreted as saying that they are wiser today than they were yesterday. Now isn’t that a positive spin on a potential screw up?