Gently talking ourselves down off that cognitive ledge

Did you ever fail a test in school, even when you studied for weeks and knew the material cold and got plenty of sleep the night before and ate a good breakfast the morning of?

It might not have been a competence issue.

Leary’s groundbreaking research dubbed this the curse of the self. He explained that one of the reasons some students often perform poorly on tests is not because they’re stupid, but because they’re stressed. Rather than focusing single mindedly on the test questions, their minds are filled with this cacophony of irrelevant thoughts.

Some are about their future, some are about their parents being disappointed in them, some are about their own study habits. And the problem is, burdened with this excessive anxiety, it becomes hard to remember all the information they learned.

Hence, the poor grade.

Sound familiar?

We’ve all trapped ourselves in one of these doom loops before. It’s not fun.

Buddhists have a term for this pattern, it’s called the second arrow. It’s the unnecessary layer of suffering we place on top of the triggering event itself, which hurts us more than the original experience. We get ensnared in an infinite regression, unable to shake the overwhelming malaise that engulfs us.

The lesson is simple. We devote too much attention to ourselves. When we do, we leave little cognitive room for healthier, more productive mental processes. We drop the ball on habits like caring and soothing and being kind to ourselves.

Turns out, if we actually want to calm down and have a real shot a peace, then we have to concentrate on something, anything, other than our own anxious thoughts.

It’s one of the reasons mantras are so deeply calming. Because if we keep telling ourselves how overwhelmed we are, we prove ourselves right. That impairs our ability to function. But when we lovingly remind ourselves that there are no emergencies, that we are equal to this challenge, that we trust our resources, that we are enough, the dust can actually settle, and we can get on with the task at hand.

Camus once wrote that there are people and even cities who annoy you, overwhelm you, and lay bare your soul, an whose scorching contact, scandalous and delightful at the same time, clings to every pore of your body.

Which may be true, but it doesn’t mean we necessarily have be overwhelmed by them.

Pressure is a choice, and if we learn how to kindly and gently talk ourselves down off that cognitive ledge, then maybe we won’t be too overwhelmed to figure out what to do about our problem. 

What will it take for you to feel less overwhelmed by emotional episodes that used to do you in?

Whose generosity would repay me for the entire day

Anyone can be fast and strong.

The real question is, how do you give other people speed and power? How are you adding energy to the system in a way that builds momentum?

This is one of the most understated forms of generosity on the planet. In a team environment, when you can find a way to earn a reputation as the person whose work enables and elevates everyone else’s, someone whose actions make other people’s jobs easier, then there’s no telling how valuable your gifts can become.

The office manager my old office was a master of this skill. Her ability to adapt, adjust and mobilize the team into action was astounding. She even joked during her initial job interview:

Your company is full of highly paid people who are trying not to do administrative tasks anymore. My job is going to be creating more freedom for them, so they can focus on doing what they do best.

Fast forward to her second week on the job. The account team desperately needed to submit a case study for a client pitch, but they had no template and no time to create a new one. Everyone was freaking out in the eleventh hour.

Barbara, however, was not. She simply whipped open her laptop, found a case study design template from her previous job and handed it over. Here you go guys, she smiled.

This saved the team hours of work and tons of stress. Her generosity created leverage where none seemed to exist, making everybody faster and stronger as a result.

How does the work you do accomplish the same goal? What resources do you have ready to go to help capitalize on every opportunity?

This is what generosity looks like. It doesn’t require abundance of strength, rather, flexibility of action.

Working in guest services at a luxury hotel helped me hone this skill. One of our gold standards was called anticipatory service, the practice of figuring out your guest’s unexpressed needs, so you can surprise and delight them.

It may feel like mind reading to them, but it’s really just being prepared, being willing to say yes and being ready to pivot on a dime. 

If you’re so smart, how come you don’t make other people smart?

Time spent complaining would be better spent responding

People with high emotional intelligence know how to manage their emotions.

They can see when they are thinking negatively and head it off at the pass, rather than allow it to toxify the environment and make people not want to be around them.

They know how to accept reality and respond to what occurs, rather than complaining about it and letting negativity eclipse their ability to see all of life’s possibilities.

The interesting thing is, people who manage their emotions effectively also tend to perform better than those who don’t. Not because they’re more skilled, but because they’re able to think clearly. Their lucidity lays a foundation that makes everything else flow better.

Metlife once hired a special group of insurance agents who tested high on emotional intelligence, but failed the normal sales aptitude test. And when compared to salespeople who passed the regular aptitude test but were more negative, the first group made twenty percent more sales in their first year and fifty percent more in the second year.

These people prove that our goal is not to deny or avoid or suppress our feelings, but to get good at balancing our moods so that worry, anxiety, fear, or anger do not get in the way of what needs to be done.

My former coworker comes to mind, who was famous for putting up a fuss any time the team had to work late. She would post these whiny, cynical, passive aggressive messages about how late it was and how hard she was working and why she needed to come in late the next day to make up for it.

And her feelings were valid. None of us were thrilled about being at the office past dinner. But her time spent complaining would probably have been better spent responding to client requests and simply getting the job done.

We all wanted to tell her, yeah, of course it’s late and our clients are idiots and you’re tired and hungry. We all are. It sucks.

Let’s not add a salty layer of criticism on top of our existing stress and make thing worse.

How does your attitude lay a foundation from which positive outcomes can flow?

Any interaction you have with them is completely pure

The beautiful thing about interacting with animals is, you know exactly when they like you.

The indicators of interest are always honest and often instantaneous. They will hold eye contact, lean against you, wag their tails, lift their eyebrows, lick your face, smile at you, purr loudly, follow you around, hang out by your desk, play games with you, seek your affection, or simply relax in your presence.

It just makes you feel so seen and loved and touched, and in a special way that you don’t always get from humans. At least not with some condition attached to it.

Reminds me of this interview with the editor of a popular pet lifestyle magazine. The guy spent twenty years in the publishing industry, but once it all went to hell during the recession, he decided to reinvent himself. After much soul searching, he thought about the force that was always constant in his life.

It was not people, it was not companies, it was pets. Because unlike people, he claimed, animals have no agenda. Any interaction you have with them is completely pure. Sure, animals may try to charm their way into licking the milk from your cereal bowl, but overall, there’s typically no angle or hidden motive behind their behavior.

Does this mean that humans are an overrated species? Or that there is something pathologically wrong with a person who deems the companionship of pets more gratifying than that of people?

Not at all. The point here is to think about what it is that we value so much about our furry companions, like unconditional love, never judging, the lack of hating and scheming and lying, and see if we can replicate some of those behaviors in our human relationships.

Because we know how good it feels when it’s done to us.

It’s funny, people will often joke and sometimes demean a person by saying, oh, he’s just like a puppy dog.

But that might be a high compliment. Unless you start peeing on their leg. 

Are you thinking about how to move your agenda forward, or how to make people feel more loved?

Take a breath, tell yourself that you’re okay

Once my coworker accidentally boarded the wrong subway, fell asleep in her seat and ended up on the other side of the city.

She messaged the team feeling embarrassed and calling herself useless for running late.

Immediately, we all agreed that it was a rite of passage, as it happens to everybody.

Congratulations on being an official urbanite, we joked.

This event was a reminder that setting boundaries, at its core, is about developing an exquisite sense of who we are. Talking to ourselves in a manner that makes us feel secure, proud and content in our ever evolving uniqueness, regardless of the external forces that aim to stain the resolution of our identity screen.

Koontz, a man whose books show piercing clarity about who he is, writes a soothing passage about this issue in one of his novels.

She wasn’t clay in the hands of others; she was rock, and with her own determined hands, she could sculpt the person that she wanted to be.

Does that sound like you? If so, you’re not alone. This distinction has been a struggle of mine for years. The practice of not allowing single events or results to define who we are, that shit’s hard.

Like when we botch the sales call at work, receive a subpar review from our manager, get into a heated argument with our spouse, or accidentally elbow some elderly woman in the face on a crowded subway during rush hour.

All of these moments are painful in their own way. But the trick is not making matters worse by beating ourselves up and letting that single event to determine our entire standard.

My yoga teacher brings this up during class all the time. Don’t make a global judgment from a single effort, she says. Just because you fall out of one posture doesn’t mean the whole class is shot. Take a breath, tell yourself that you’re okay, and begin again.

Seligman notably named this mindset learned optimism, whereby we tell ourselves that what happened was not personal but an unlucky situation, not permanent and just a setback, and not pervasive because it’s merely one of many goals to pursue.

Don’t let a single disappointing event make you question yourself and your capabilities. Don’t allow one negative comment from someone to send you into a negativity tailspin. Don’t allow a poor outcome to lead you to believe that it’s all going south.

Fight for your identity boundaries. Train yourself to notice and resist the incredibly limited and distorted lens through which you view yourself.

You’re a good person, you’re not perfect, and you’re going to be okay. 

Are you defining yourself in a way that’s confining yourself?

It’s just a house of prostitution on wheels

The common denominator in all of our problems is us.

External factors may play a small part in our dissatisfaction, but most of the time, the call is coming from inside the house. Whatever we are blaming is merely the symptom, not the source.

It’s like my coworker who complains ad nauseam about the dating scene in this city. After several years without meeting someone special, he is convinced that he must be using the wrong dating app. That’s got to be the problem. Maybe if he studies the reviews and signs up for highest rated platforms and hedges his romantic bets, he will finally be able to say goodbye to loneliness.

Have you ever heard this argument before? Not just about dating, but about any personal goal?

It doesn’t work. People are just blaming some external thing enough so that they won’t have to reckon their own part of it. In fact, we’ve been making this exact argument for over a hundred years.

Ling’s book on the early history of the automobile shows that after the first world war, many people had mistakenly generalized technology as having a deterministic role in our lives. In response to an uptick in sexual activity among young people in the early part of the century, one judge famously explained that the automobile had become a house of prostitution on wheels.

Compelling imagery, but just because one curmudgeon in a black robe blamed a trend on technology doesn’t mean it’s true. Hence the classic quotation in the software industry, technology is only as good as the user.

Meaning, the problem is not the app, but the attitude of the person holding it.

Which brings us back to dating. When you’re trying to meet a potential partner, chemistry isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. And so, whatever energy we bring to that romantic process, it’s going to flow right into our device and.

It doesn’t matter which app we use. This is the argument I have been making about nametags for twenty years. They only work to the degree that one wearing them is approachable.

All the nametags in the world aren’t going to make people friendlier if you’re an asshole. 

What problem are you blaming on everything other than yourself?

The best response to radio silence

When people we love don’t return our calls, it triggers a host of complicated emotions.

There’s fear, where we wonder if they’re okay and hope that nothing bad has happened to them.

There’s dissatisfaction, since the expectation in the social contract of all human relationships is communicating.

There’s guilt, as we start worrying what we might have done or said to push them away.

There’s apathy, where we just feel like giving up and leaving the ball in their court and if they don’t call back, fine, that’s on them.

There’s resentment, since there’s no way people’s lives are so hectic that they can’t take five minutes to return a call, and who the hell do they think they are, anyway?

All of these feelings and normal, healthy and valid. Anyone with a heart and people in their lives who they care about, has been there before.

But considering every single person on this planet is fighting a battle that we know nothing about, and considering every human being rests at the nexus of a vast number of interwoven causes and conditions that influence their behavior, then the best response to radio silence is love.

Certainly, there will always be exceptions for certain people with whom hard boundaries need to be set, and in certain cases, relationships need to dissolve.

But most of the time, the most healing solution to any problem is more love. Truth is, if we are better because someone is in our lives, then we should be prepared to overlook their weaknesses, employ a little compassion and forgiveness, and love them anyway.

Nepo’s brilliant meditation on compassion comes to mind:

The reward for breathing is not applause but air. The reward for kindness is not being seen as kind, but the electricity of giving that keeps us alive. The reward for loving is being the carrier of love. It all becomes elusively simple. The closer we get to the core of all being, the more synonymous the effort and its reward.

Right now, think about one person in your life who is notorious for not calling you back. But instead of ruminating about their flaws and weaknesses and the state of your relationship, just pick up the phone and call them. Keep calling them. Even if that means having a relationship with their voicemail, even if that means sending them messages without knowing if they’ve received them, even if that means sending them gifts without knowing if they appreciate them.

Keep calling them, if only for the sacred experience of being the carrier of love.

You know, at a certain point in all relationships, we have to burn our scoreboards, give each other lifetime passes, and remember that it’s not about how many people love us, it’s how many people’s lives are better because we love them. 

To whom are you willing to be the carrier of love?

Waiting for people to get used to you

Setting boundaries doesn’t always have to be some big, sweeping, grandiose, philosophical proclamation about the limits of our integrity.

It can be as small and simple as not picking up the phone after a certain hour at night. Or choosing to go to bed early when the rest of the group is still up partying. Or not checking email within an hour of waking up. Or not engaging with a toxic person from your past who tries to contact you.

It’s simply a matter of stating our needs, if only to ourselves, and then taking action to support them.

My therapist friend recently told me that one of the ways she protects confidentiality is by not greeting patients in public. She will return the hello if they bump into each other, but will not engage in any sort of therapeutic conversation outside of appointment times.

My coworker told me that her former boss had been reaching out via social media to recruit her to his new startup. She noticed feeling triggered as a result of reading his messages, so she let that be a sign. She promptly unfriended him across all platforms and moved on with her life.

These types of boundaries are small, but nonetheless empowering and effective. They are micro expressions of our values. And the nice part is, they keep our boundary setting muscles top shape. That way, if the time comes to draw the line on a more significant issue, muscle memory kicks in and gives us a path toward authentic expression.

Naturally, certain people will resist or even ridicule our boundaries. Giving us a hard time about being too rigid and telling us how we need to learn to live a little.

Fine. Let them feel their feelings. We are not responsible for their emotions, and we are not succumbing to their vortex of guilt. Our boundaries are around our behavior, not theirs.

To quote my favorite cartoonist, when you cannot change your habits, simply acknowledge them with humor and wait for people to get used to you.

Remember, each of can have a sense of ownership over ourselves.

It all starts with setting limits in small, concrete ways.

What expression of integrity needs to be made?

Our arms spread wide and welcome it all

Years ago, one of our new employees told us that he didn’t feel welcomed during his first week at our company.

Despite his office orientation and a few friendly faces checking in to see how he was carrying on, most of the team was heads down in their typical day to day, and he was feeling disconnected from the group.

This tension is common at organizations. It’s personally happened to me at a number of jobs, and it’s hard not to take it personally. It’s also hard not to blame it on the company for being cold and inhospitable.

But before jumping to any conclusions, there are a few things worth thinking about.

First, whatever interpersonal issue people are dealing with, it’s always helpful to assume that it’s a vestige of a long evolutionary process. Some ancient safety device in their reptilian brain is at work trying to protect the nest and aid the group in their survival.

Green writes about this in his book on the laws of human nature. He explains that the deep suspicion we tend to feel toward outsiders to our group, and our need to demonize them, evolved among our earliest ancestors because of the tremendous dangers of infectious diseases and the aggressive intentions of rival hunter gatherers.

And this social force is neither positive nor negative. It’s simply a physiological part of our nature. If we can wrap our caveman brains around that reality, our feelings of disconnection will be much easier to manage.

The second thing worth thinking about it is, belonging is a street that goes both ways. When you work at an organization whose cultural temperature tends to the colder side, then you have to go out of your way to bring the warm.

If you aren’t feeling welcomed, then you have to welcome yourself.

You can’t just sit back and wait for people to be friends with you. Otherwise the experience of belonging will be left to chance, and you will perpetuate you own disconnection.

Take it from the guy who was so lonely in college that he resorted to wearing a nametag every day, just to make friends. Welcoming yourself takes work to work, even if people are weirded out by it at first.

Reminds me of my favorite fiction author, who depicts belonging in a most beautiful way:

Belonging is being securely and deeply connected to it all, like a fiber in the cloth, that’s what counts. Belonging is the opposite of thinking that, wherever we are, we would be better off somewhere else. This primal and sacred experience is available to us all, even in an otherwise cold and corporate environment.

But we must have compassion for the evolutionary context in which we exist, and modify our behavior accordingly.

How might you be able to welcome yourself?

Each individual carries their own energy signature

Gallup conducted a workplace poll revealing that twenty percent of employees put in more than sixty hours a week, and nearly fifty percent of employees clock in at least fifty hours.

Hooray. Americans are finally number one at something again.

And yet, multiple psychological studies have shown that humans can only concentrate for about half of that amount of time, and only do real work for about a third of that amount of time.

As usual, that’s capitalism for you. It only works when more and more is being produced, aka, more and more hours being put in.

This research is compelling, and some organizations are taking measures to be more accommodating to their teams with fewer hours. But most are missing the big picture.

The type of energy we bring to our workplace is far more valuable than the number of hours we work there.

Each individual carries their own psychic ecology and their own energy signature, everywhere they go. When we learn to manage that energy skillfully, not to mention, have compassion for other people’s energy too, we all get more done in less time, more sustainably.

The number of hours we work becomes irrelevant.

Something that’s been helpful for me is viewing energy as a spectrum. Viewing it as a distribution of different approaches we can take when we show up each day. Here are several questions to help you figure out where you might index on that energetic range.

Do you suffer necessary evils, or do you take control of the stuff sapping your energy?

Are you a serial over committer without much regard for limits of time, or do you set boundaries on your how many new projects you take on?

Do you direct your vitality towards defending your ego, or arrive to the office with your psychic energy saved for the real work?

Can you identify both where are people naturally not getting energy, and where you can merge with the slipstream energy of the moment and be carried by it?

Do you dedicate an inordinate amount of time to experimenting with organizing details, or do you get your projects into good enough shape to accomplish your goal?

Notice how none of those questions referred to the quantity of hours, only the quality.

That may seem anti capitalistic, but it’s really just pro contentment. Maybe one day our country will unlearn some of our materialistic roots and get more intentional about bringing quality energy to the world. 

Do the people you work with value the contributions of your temperament, or just your time?

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