DR. JAN NEWMAN
With tears of frustration building in his eyes, my son tried to explain his problem.
He and a close friend had disagreed about some obscure detail from the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) at school. (If you have older kids, that might make you laugh, but as we are entering the teenage years very soon, so I’m holding on for dear life to disputes about the MCU. Thank goodness Disney keeps releasing fodder for childhood arguments).
Their disagreement then morphed into something more. Words were said that shouldn’t have been. Both being strong-willed, each child’s identified solution was for the other to admit he was wrong and apologize. Not surprisingly, that didn’t go so well.
Later, on the car ride back home, my son told me that his friend “just needs to admit he’s wrong and apologize” and “I need to make him understand that. . . .”
After telling me he was angry, I asked him if I could check in* with him, “Where are you at – 1 – 10 on how much anger you have now?” . . . “A million.”
Check – there’s the heat source. Autonomic nervous system.
As the emotion is building to a crescendo, on cue, here come the negative thoughts. Of course, they’re laced with inflexibility – words like “never” and “always” and “have to” and “must” – “He will never change” and “He always does this.”
Check – there’s the oxygen. Thoughts, beliefs, judgements, etc.
And then within a few minutes, he’s rationalizing why he may want to consider ending a 5-year friendship over a debate on the finer points of Thor’s origin story.
Boom. And there’s the FIRE.
How does an example like this apply to your life or mine?
As adults, we do the same thing every day. (And if you’ve ever seen the Secret Life of Walter Mitty, wow, you can see where that can lead!”)
Ok, so hopefully, we’re not arguing about the finer points of the MCU, but my guess is a kid would tell us quickly that most of what we’re arguing might not be any more important than the MCU!
First, let’s start by acknowledging that stress and anxiety are normal reactions to any situation that involves threat or uncertainty.
And the corollary – the bigger the valued domain or relationship the more intense the stress. Whether it be a disagreement about the MCU with a close friend or doing the laundry or arguing about visitation in child custody – if it involves a key relationship, the nervous system response will intensify. The feels will be bigger.
Once the stress response is elevated enough, what I call the “negative thought lint roller” starts doing its thing. Like a lint roller finding dog fur in my home, the brain defaults to its negativity bias and easily finds things to ruminate on – things the other person has done in the past or things that we could have done differently. Our brain then time travels into the future to predict what might happen to the relationship in the future and how it will affect us. We might start playing the blame game with ourselves or others.
No matter what direction we go, once our stress response overpowers our prefrontal cortex, we narrow our focus and become very restricted in our actions. We are no longer present. We’re on autopilot.
We tend to focus on problems, not the solutions – all the things that we’re not doing and, consequently, we can’t control.
We try to control the uncontrollable. And that’s what the mind does. The mind is a problem-solving machine that hates threat and uncertainty so whenever it sees a problem, it tries to quash it out.
“If all you have is a hammer, all the world is a nail”
Yet when we are making a decision or setting goals in relationships and other contexts, one of the most important things to focus on is what is in your control.
Sound easy to figure out? You might change your mind in a sec.
What Can You Control or Influence?
When I say control, I mean pretty much on a dime. Like, Yoda, “do or not do” kind of control. The answer: Our behaviors, words, and decisions. That’s it.
Ok, what about those things that we can’t control (on a dime) but it is possible to influence through our actions?
Turns out – a whole lot – if we’re willing, we are doing so for the right reasons or values, and we’re willing to take action to obtain what we need to do it. And that often means being willing to learn a host of skills.
Why didn’t I mention our thoughts and feelings as something you can control? Because – um – we actually can’t control those on a dime. This usually raises some eyebrows when I present to organizations and corporations.
The good news is that we can use skills to influence them.
I love when people tell me that they can control their thoughts on a dime. Some people are very sure that they can. It’s a very common belief actually. I used to believe that when I was lawyer before I studied neuroscience.
And after years and years of being told by coaches to “think positive” and, in church, being told that I should as forgiveness for having “sinful” thoughts – it was a revelation. Back then, I remember thinking. . . hey what? You just made me feel bad for not thinking positive when I really wasn’t trying. When you said sin, it made me literally think, “sinful thought.” How is this even possible?”
Let’s illustrate why we can’t control our thoughts.
No matter what you do right now. Do not think about pink elephants. Don’t think about one. Don’t do it.
Some people will tell me that they have thought about a blue elephant and switched it out, so they can control their thoughts. They’ve actually done this study before, using a white bear though, and the brain scan data revealed that everyone still thought about the white bear – except at a greater intensity than they had before.
There’s no delete button in the brain for your thoughts.
Yes, you absolutely can use some rock-solid cognitive skills including things like defusion and self-compassionate cognitive reframing (NOT thought suppression or replacement) to manage those thoughts, but you can’t delete them or cover them up with positive thinking.
What about our feelings or emotions? Many people will tell me that they can “push down” or “compartmentalize” their emotions. I get it. I have tried that also.
The research also doesn’t support this as a workable strategy. (Check out my articles on this concept here and here and some fall out here and here). Turns out that when we try to avoid or suppress the physiological sensations of emotion we tend to amplify them. Similar to trying to suppress or delete a thought, it’s like trying to push a beach ball under the water. You can do it for a little while perhaps, but in the end, it will throttle you in the face.
What You Can’t Control and Is Also Tough to Influence
There are some things that you can’t control and which are hard to influence without orienting with values and gaining some skills.
Like most of us, my son got hooked here. His brain was hooked by the zero-sum game of being right or wrong on something with a person. It’s called confirmation bias, and it’s a powerful thing.
He was later able to step back and think about what else mattered – the relationship.
“Being right is highly overrated in a relationship.”
If you hear yourself saying that you are going to do something or not do something, so you won’t “hurt his feelings” or “make her feel bad,” you’ve been hooked.
There are definitely actions you can take – like learning and using effective communication skills – to help enhance the likelihood you will have a positive conversation.
However, let’s be clear.
There is no way to guarantee that any action you take will cause a person TO think, feel, or do something or NOT think, feel, or do something.
In that scenario, your goal would communicating in a manner consistent with your values. If the other person doesn’t respond favorably, that doesn’t mean that you didn’t need to say something. We see things not as they are, but as we are. The other person will see things from their perspective, and we can’t control that on a dime.
“There is no way to guarantee that any action you take will cause a person to think, feel, or do something or not think, feel, or do something. ”
Through your actions, you can influence some aspects of groups and systems to which you belong such as your marriage, family, and work environment.
Often, a very important part of making decisions in these contexts is figuring out what behaviors or choices are within your control. If you identify a problem and work to change the things that you believe are within your control, this is great. Yet if things are not getting better it’s important that you remember there are other people involved. If they will not change those behaviors or choices that are causing the problem, then you can’t control that.
It’s important to remember that if you stay in an unworkable situation where you’ve done all you can and the other person(s) unwilling or unable to change – staying is a choice also.
Think about times that you’ve tried to control someone’s behavior? Or you’ve seen experienced another person try to control yours? This can get really ugly when people are involved. Things that people use to control other people: physical or verbal aggression or threats (“If you don’t do X, I will X”), taking things or privileges away, insults, guilt trips, or shaming (“If you cared about me, you would do X for me.” )
Instead, what are things that you could say or do to try to influence others while respecting their autonomy and the relationship? Think about times that you’ve tried to influence someone’s behavior positively and it was helpful? Or you’ve seen another person try to influence yours and it was helpful?
This is the big stuff that drives our brains completely nuts. If we thought about this stuff all day, we would be so stressed and anxious we couldn’t function.
We faced this with the pandemic in a new way. Epidemiologists probably walked around worrying about this stuff, but we weren’t used to it. It also impacted really high-value things in our lives – our relationships, our children, our careers. So with these big things, it’s even more important to go back to that question.
What can I control?
And just remembering that, on a dime, all you can control is YOUR behaviors, words, and decisions. Yet as Victor Frankl powerfully concludes in Man’s Search for Meaning, the ability to choose one’s behavior is the ultimate freedom of humanity.
Ok what’s next? When you’ve isolated what factors you can control and those you can potentially influence, the next question is what are you willing to do about it? So, are you willing to take the action that will influence the situation or decision?
For everything you’re not willing to act on or if your actions end up not producing the change you want, what’s next? Heads up – you’re probably not going to like it unless you wait for the pivot.
What can I learn to accept?
If you have identified what you can change or influence with your actions and decisions and you have taken that as far as you can go, then what’s left is something that you must accept to move forward with your decision on that situation or relationship.
Most people don’t respond well to being told that they should accept anything. Yet we’re talking radical acceptance.
Radical acceptance is not resignation, weakness, or giving up. It’s recognizing that continuing to expend internal or external effort on things beyond your control has a cost as well.
One definition of radical acceptance is, “the ability to acknowledge and accept situations that are outside of your control without judging them, which in turn reduces the suffering that is caused by them.”
For example, if in your career, you’re in a position where you’ve been starting to get burned out. You work harder than others for the same money. You feel underappreciated. If you identify things that you can do like ask for a reduction in work, to be second on more projects, pause on taking new business, or even take a leave of absence and try those, great. If those don’t work, however, and your management team is still not honoring your limits, then there’s a point where it’s helpful to accept that they’re not likely going to change. It’s sad and frustrating when this happens, yet it’s important that you recognize the costs to you.
The flexible acceptance of pain offers spaciousness, efficiency, strategic thinking, and laser-focused goals and actions whereas rigid and inflexible avoidance of pain feels narrow, restrictive, and disconnected, hooked.
Think about a time in your life when you were not able to accept a situation as it was or a person as he or she was, and there was a downside to this. What were the short and long-term consequences of avoiding? What’s the flipside if you had accepted reality sooner? Which way would have been more aligned with your values in the long term?
“Stop trying to control how you think and feel, and instead take control of what you do.”
After understanding the options on control, you can then think about what you’re able and willing to change in your own behavior and what you can try to influence or accept with everything else.
The next step is making a choice.
What Will You Choose?
So, at this point, you could do several things. In his new book on using Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) to cope with grief, loss, and trauma, When Life Hits Hard, Dr. Russ Harris lays these out as follows:
Leave the situation
Stay in the situation living by your values and continue to make it better through values-based action
Stay in the situation and continue to do things that make no difference or make it worse (and don’t align with values-based action)
Often, Option 1 is not available. When I was trying to leave the legal profession, everyone told me to quit. My career coach. My psychologist. Yet they wouldn’t agree to pay my mortgage, for some reason or offer me free sessions when I left. It took time for me to leave on my terms, and that was the best and most values-aligned decision for me. Thank goodness, I had found ACT then!
Option 2 is often the sweet spot. You can work to improve a relationship or situation and emerge on the other side – empowered and joyous. Growth is pain. Success in life and business comes through the vehicle of discomfort and uncertainty most of the time. With this option, it’s often remembering that if your goals for action feel overwhelming, then make them smaller and simpler to avoid getting stuck.
However, if the actions are all pain and no upside, check-in. I strongly recommend that you set a limit here or a “floor” on how bad things have to be before you go back to Option 1. One of my favorite quips here is “knowing when to jump off the swing.” It’s a thing. You saw people on the playground wait too long here. Not pretty.
With Option 3, the main point here is to see that it’s an option. It’s a choice. When you choose the status quo, it is not free; it has costs also. It’s the devil you know, but it could still be a devil.
Often this is what happens with burnout. A person has stayed in the situation longer than their nervous system is on board for. Pretty much, at this point, your nervous system has decided you can no longer be trusted to regulate it, and like an exhausted two-year-old walking through Disney World to do one more ride, it will have no more of you and your excuses. It wants some fries and a nap. Yet the crash and burn for an adult can be much more painful, so it’s important to be cautious here.
(Dr. Harris doesn’t mention this, but there’s probably a hybrid situation involving some of Option 2 and some of Option 3 as well.)
All of these options will likely involve pain and discomfort. It’s important to recognize that. However, Option 3 typically offers the promise of short-term relief by putting off the bigger change. Options 1 and 2 offer more longer-term vitality.
Deciding what option to choose also depends a great deal on what matters to you.
Back to the MCU example . . .
I asked my son what mattered to him about the whole thing. Was it being right about the MCU? Or his friend? Or some of both?
He talked about his love of the MCU yet he also started to connect that there was something added by sharing his interests with someone. Once he started talking about the fun things they did and realizing that most people, including the people he loves the most, don’t even know what he’s talking about, things shifted more into focus.
When he realized that his primary goal had been to control his friend’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, so he could be “right,” he was able to see that his strategies weren’t going to work.
“If the friendship is worth a lot to you and you can’t control what he does, then what can you control?,” I asked patiently, fighting every fiber in my being to tell him my answer. He sighed, “What I do.” Yes.
So, for now, he has decided to go with Option 2. He is willing to take some actions that could help instead of waiting until his friend changes first or trying to make him change. We framed it as an experiment though, and he’s collecting data, so to speak.
At the end of the conversation, he thanked me for helping him “do the right thing,” but he wasn’t smiling. He said it with a groan.
This is the part where I’m supposed to wrap this up and rest on my parenting laurels or whatever. But instead, what happens when you’re a researcher of human behavior and neuroscience like me is that you can’t leave that stuff alone. That was like a parenting touchdown. But no, I couldn’t let it be because of a point. A mere footnote in the grand scheme of things. In for a penny, in for a pound.
Due to a very important concept, but one that I should have let go that day, I had to qualify his statement on “doing the right thing.” In ACT, that concept is called willingness.
So, if we choose to change our behavior to “collect data” on our job or a relationship, we must do that willingly.
Willingness means that we are doing something understanding and accepting that there’s no guarantee or promise, but we are choosing to change our behavior because it’s what’s most in line with our values. In an earlier article, I discussed the importance of choosing actions freely and willingly.
Values that are forced or pressured don’t produce effective action. Usually, we do this because we’ve had some programming where someone used some degree of guilt or shame to convince us to follow certain “rules.”
Yet, if we take action because we “should” or because we “need to do the right thing” or some other rule we’ve been programmed with, we’re actually not choosing. And, as I mentioned, in another article, our brain seems to know when we’re not following our values.
When I clarified this with my son, thankfully, he got the difference, but then he offered a rejoinder. “Then if I do chores because you ask me to, and I’m not freely choosing that, then that’s not going to work, right? I’d have to want to do them.”
Yet with the friendship, he was able to make another choice to act in a values-based way in a relationship that matters to him. In his relationship with me, he decided to drop the argument on chores.
“Mom, thank you for helping me with this . . . can we stop talking about this and go watch What If instead?” YES!
Ultimately, that’s the point right? After you choose the action, you go do it in the real world and in the relationships, you do have.
And his choice to drop it and watch an episode with me was a safe one. He’d get no argument from me.
He knows I don’t care about Thor’s origin story – as long as I get to watch Marvel!
When Life Hits Hard, Russ Harris.
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