The majority of our emotional responses result from how we interpret a situation. People go to amusement parks to be intentionally scared out of their wits on roller coasters. We term the heart-pounding and adrenalin rush experienced in such situations “excitement”, but if we endure the same sensations due to an unplanned event, such as narrowly escaping being hit by a car, we probably wouldn’t consider this pleasant.
The difference lies partially in how competent we perceive ourselves to be, and such a feeling is not developed in a vacuum. We need to seek out challenges and adventure to increase our belief that we can play well the hand that life deals us. Here are some tools to help pave the way:
Remember your past victories. Recall those times when you’ve faced a seemingly insurmountable challenge and emerged triumphant. Close your eyes and revisit the joyful feelings you felt at such moments. Immerse yourself in these emotions, allowing them to rejuvenate your soul and body. Consider the strengths you utilized to bring about your successes. Write these down and refer to them often.
Focus on the solution. Along with acknowledging your strengths, strive to look on the bright side the majority of the time. Every cloud has a silver lining. When uncomfortable feelings arise, use the “one minute on the problem, two minutes on the solution” rule – in other words, acknowledge your concern or discomfort, express yourself if appropriate, and then turn your energy to finding an answer (or helping someone else).
Be happy for others’ successes. Rather than indulging in envy over your friends’ achievements and brooding about where you feel you may have fallen short, practice joining in your friends’ happiness and celebrating with them. We really are all in this together.
Ask others to support you. Even if you have close friends and family, don’t assume that they know when you could use some encouragement. Express gratitude for the ways in which they already help you and request additional assistance in specific areas.
Assume rapport. Expect people to like you. You may get it wrong some of the time, but anticipating camaraderie tends to give you confidence and enthusiasm, which will make you come off as friendlier and more appealing. From then on it’s often a domino effect – the other person will feel that you like them, they will like themselves more, they’ll be friendlier to you, you’ll feel better about yourself, etc. My cat Buster used to leap on everyone, even strange cats, the first time he met them, and although this earned him a few swat-downs, in general people and animals adored him.
Develop a group of imaginary mentors. Napoleon Hill, author of “Think and Grow Rich”, the best-seller on emotional as well as financial abundance, created a Cabinet of Imaginary Counselors including Shakespeare, Abraham Lincoln, and Ralph Waldo Emerson, which he mentally consulted when making decisions. Hill compiled quotes and principles embodied by those individuals on his Cabinet and thus derived benefit from their accumulated wisdom. You can create your own Cabinet by considering both famous people and those individuals in your life who demonstrate qualities you’d like to emulate. Write down the names, qualities, and quotes you associate with these people and refer to them often.
Slow down. Life is not a race. As long as you’re taking consistent steps in the direction of your goals, you’ll get there on time. In addition, often when we’re rushing it takes us just as long, if not longer, to get where we want to go. I’m often amused by impatient drivers who zip in and out of traffic, changing lanes frequently and revving their engines. Inevitably they end up next to (or behind) my car about 30 minutes later – and probably a lot more stressed than I am.
Take a deep breath. Take another one, breathing from your belly, as if you’re trying to break an imaginary string that’s tied around your waist. Abdominal breathing (which sleeping babies do naturally) activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which stimulates the body’s relaxation response. Both your body and mind will calm down, which will allow you to think more clearly and put you in a better position to meet the demands of the moment.
Feel the fear, and move forward anyway. Inoculate yourself to fear by allowing yourself to be exposed to it and learning that it won’t kill you. This makes it more likely that the next time you’re faced with the same situation, your level of fear will go down a notch, while your sense of self-efficacy will likely increase. In general, we earn courage.
Get the ball rolling. It’s a law of physics that a body at rest remains at rest, while a body in motion continues to move (unless thwarted by an external force). So, set your timer for five minutes and tell yourself that you’ll work on your chosen project for just that long. Chances are that when your timer goes off, you’ll be sufficiently involved in your task to reset the timer and work on it some more.
Watch your language. Instead of using inflammatory phrases such as “This is terrible”, “I can’t stand this”, or “I’m overwhelmed”, try “This is uncomfortable”, “I can handle this”, or “I’ll take things one step at a time”. Words are powerful, so choose yours carefully.
Enjoy the process. In Mark Twain’s book “Tom Sawyer”, Tom is faced with the unenviable job of whitewashing a fence. At first he mourns his apparent misfortune, but then he reframes the task as a wonderful opportunity, and his friends end up paying him for the privilege of whitewashing the fence. Tom learns the principle that “work consists on what a body is obliged to do, and Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do”. So, recognize that you don’t really have to do anything. You don’t even have to get out of bed. Of course, if you don’t, you may eventually not have a bed to get out of, but you get the point – when faced with a task, come up with reasons why you want to do it and keep these in mind. If nothing else, consider the task an opportunity to strengthen your “discomfort tolerance” muscle.
You don’t have to see the big picture to begin. Consider a jig-saw puzzle. We often start by picking up the “border” pieces. We then match up those pieces with similar colors. As we move forward, experimenting with pieces that do and do not fit together, a clearer picture starts to emerge. It’s only by trial and error that we complete the puzzle, not by staring warily at the pieces and refusing to dive in and begin.
And finally, define success as being willing to try. As Thomas Edison said about his many attempts to perfect the light bulb before he succeeded, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” View your life as an experiment. Whether or not things turn out the way you’d like them to, if you make it your goal to step out of your comfort zone, you’ll develop greater strength, wisdom, and courage in the process.