Events are just events. Stuff happens. That’s it.
THEN we create a story to explain that event. We interpret what happened and make up reasons why it happened, and our “story” evokes an emotional response from us. Suddenly an event is labeled good, bad, ugly, and we feel sadness, optimism, fear, anger, appreciation, frustration, concern…
Not from the event, but from our thinking about the event.
I recent had a coaching conversation in which the subject was betrayal. My client showed up in the coaching conversation with a bubbling stew of negative emotions – which she’d cooked up herself. I coached her to step away from her story and consider other possibilities.
The Fact: Person X failed to keep a promise.
- (original story) X harmed me. X did it on purpose to hurt me. X is always trying to make me look bad. What have I done to deserve such treatment? I’m gonna get back at X. (The path of rage and vengeance.)
- X let me down. I feel betrayed. I’m not ready for my big presentation because of X. This is going to be a disaster. (The path of embarrassment.)
- This is not like X; this is unusual. I hope everything is OK with X. Maybe I should call X. (The path of concern/empathy.)
- X is unreliable. Why did I believe X would do as promised? I am such an idiot for believing X. Why am I so stupid? I’m so bad at reading people. (The path of self-loathing.)
- This is the third time X has done this. I need to sit down with X and understand why this happened. I must renegotiate the promise. (The path to determination.)
- I know from past experience that X’s promises are not meaningful. I did not really expect X to deliver. So this is no big deal. I’ll just have to complete it. (The path to acceptance.)
These are all valid interpretations. Notice, however, how each creates different emotions and responses.
I’m not saying that one story is “more true” than another. I invited my client to explore other possible stories and consider if there are valid explanations other than the one that she was hanging on to that was harming her and keeping her emotional stew on a slow boil.
My client – after creating the above options – chose to pursue the path of determination. 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 complete this by close of business tomorrow?”). Hanging on to her anger was hurting only her. X was blissfully unaware of the concern. When approached about the broken promise, X apologized and confessed to not realizing how important the project was.
In the end, much of my client’s original story was fiction, and the emotional stew was self-cooked.
Creating Your Own Good from Bad
When you find yourself stewing in your own emotional juices, turn down the heat! Step out of the situation for a moment and consider OTHER interpretations for the event. Select a different story that allows you more control of the situation. Let 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. Change your thinking when you need to and have a happier day.
Jim Smith, PCC, is The Executive Happiness Coach®. He is an international speaker, executive and life coach, and author. He provides his clients with inspiration and practical tools to live a happier life and build more positive work cultures. He is the author of Happiness At The Speed of Life: 13 Powerful Strategies for Finding Happiness at Home and On The Job, and has touched the lives of over 10,000 people worldwide through his work on Positive Emotion and Leadership. You can connect with Jim at theexecutivehappinesscoach.com.