“…there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Hamlet, Act II Scene 2
This quote from Shakespeare is one of my all-time favorites… and defines a foundational element of my coaching practice and life philosophy.
Events are just events. Stuff happens. That’s it.
THEN…we create a story to explain that event. In our “story” we interpret what happened and make up reasons why it happened, and that story evokes an emotional response from us… and suddenly an event is labeled: good, bad, ugly. And we feel sadness, optimism, fear, anger, appreciation, frustration, concern, etc
Not from the event, but from our thinking about the event.
In the past week I’ve coincidentally had two separate coaching conversations in which the subject was betrayal – one work-related, the other personal. Both parties showed up in the coaching conversation with a bubbling stew of negative emotions — Which they’d cooked up themselves, by the way. And in both cases I coached them to step away from their story and examine a few others.
Example: Another person (X) failed to keep a promise (this is a fact).
- (original story) X has harmed me. X did it on purpose to hurt me. I’m angry. X is always trying to make me look bad. What have I ever done to deserve such treatment? I’m gonna watch for my opportunity to get back at X…. (down the path to rage and vengeance)
- X let me down. I feel betrayed. I have this big presentation coming up, and now I’m not ready, because of X. This is going to be a disaster (down the path of embarrassment)
- X has harmed me. That’s not like X; this is unusual. I hope everything is OK with X. Maybe I should give X a call (down the path of concern/empathy)
- X is so unreliable. Why did I ever believe X would do as promised? I am such an idiot for ever believing X. Why am I so stupid? I’m so bad at reading people. (down the path of self-loathing)
- This is the third time this has happened with X. I need to sit down with X and understand why this is happening. I must renegotiate the promise (down the path to determination)
- The track record of X shows that promises made by X are not meaningful. I did not really expect X to deliver. So this is no big deal. I’ll just have to complete it myself in time for the presentation. (down the path to acceptance)
Each of these is a valid interpretation. Notice how each one, however, creates a very different emotion and response.
I’m not ever saying that one story is ‘more true’ than another…I just invite my client to explore other possible stories, and consider if there are valid explanations other than the one that they are hanging on to that is harming them and keeping their emotional stew on a slow boil.
In this particular situation, my client – after creating the above options – chose to pursue the path of determination, and instead of simmering in her office she sat down with X to express disappointment and then immediately renegotiate (“what’s it going to take to have this done by tomorrow at end of day?”). She realized that hanging on to her anger was hurting only her. X was blissfully unaware of the concern, and when approached about the broken promise X apologized and confessed to not realizing how important the project was.
So in the end, much of her original story was fiction, and the emotional stew was self-cooked.
Creating Your Own Good from Bad
Does the above ever happen to you? (of course it does. You’re human!). So when you find yourself sitting in assessment and stewing in your own emotional juices, turn down the heat! Step out of the situation for a moment and consider OTHER possible stories and interpretations for the event. Maybe select a different story that allows you more control of the situation, and lets go of blaming the other person for your own emotional reaction.
And then take a deep breath. Remember, it’s only your thinking that makes it good or bad. So change your thinking when you need to, and have a happier day.