Make problems your ally not opponent

Have you ever watched the film The Wizard of Oz? If you have, do you recall believing the Wizard to be some huge terrifying creature, with that booming voice and all of the smoke etc.  All of that, only to find out that when little Toto drew back the curtain, it was just a pathetic little man, no more intimidating than a Teletubby.  At that point our fear immediately evaporated.

Have you ever pondered the idea that many of our problems can be like this at times.  We build them up in our imaginations to be something awful and insurmountable, and then it’s only when we take the brave step forward and draw back the curtain, that we often realise there wasn’t as much to worry about as we’d thought.

We can’t expect life to be all roses

Now, I’m not saying that bad things don’t happen in life, they do.  But that’s just part and parcel of the way things are.  People will have problems, and things will always go wrong.  But It’s how we approach these adversities that ultimately determines how we end up feeling about them.

Studies have shown that by hiding away from our negative thoughts and emotions we can actually make them worse.

Don’t let emotional debts pile up

Strong negative thoughts and emotions are a bit like debts.  If you’ve ever been in debt you’ll know that it hangs over you like a dark cloud and constantly interrupts your thoughts.  The longer you leave them unattended to the more interest accrues.  By dealing with our negative thoughts and emotions as soon as we notice them, we can pay them off before any interest accrues and begins to harm our mental credit rating.

Avoidance rarely works

By turning away from our problems we end up thinking about them even more.  Russian author, Dostoevsky said “Try not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute”.

Try not to think about a turquoise elephant

In his classic ‘White bear experiment’ Harvard psychology professor Daniel Wegner asked individuals to try not to think about white polar bears for a period of five minutes.  The results showed that attempts at suppression of thoughts about white polar bears actually made them come back even more powerfully later on.

This is because when we task ourselves with not thinking about something (perhaps by distracting ourselves) a part of our mind does avoid thinking about it, but another part of our mind checks in every now and again to make sure that we’re not thinking about it.  So we actually have to think about it to make sure we’re not thinking about it!

Why have we been getting this wrong for so long?

With this in mind it becomes clear that by trying to hide from our problems we may actually be intensifying them in our heads.  Perhaps good old distraction isn’t as smart an idea as many of us have led ourselves to believe.  I guess it’s a bit like trying to ignore someone you’ve fallen out with. You have to think about them in order to remember to ignore them.

If you’re a parent, you’ll probably recall many a joyful time when they were young and just wouldn’t stop crying.  In this situation you had three main options: Option one was to close the door tightly, and turn the television up.  Option two was to shout at them in the hope that it would get them to stop.  And option three (the sensible one) was to pick them up, give them the attention they needed, and cradle (or sing if you have a good voice) them back to sleep.

The same applies to problems that are plaguing our minds.  They won’t go away if we close the door and turn the T.V up, and they’re unlikely to be deterred by us shouting at them.  So the only real option we have left is to turn towards them and give them the attention they desire.  With this approach we can take a look at them to see if they’re as bad as we initially thought.  Often they aren’t.  Most problems lose some if not all of their sting when we put them under the microscope, and they simply go back to sleep.

Worry lives in the future

Constant worry takes our attention out of the present moment and into the future, a place where we have little control of events.  We have no control of them because they simply haven’t happened yet.  Sure we can effect the future with our actions, but to believe we can control it is a recipe for madness.  A bit like wanting to control other people’s actions, we may have some tiny degree of ability to affect them, but ultimately it’s out of our hands.

Choose what you focus on

Steven Covey in his book 7 habits of highly effective people, referred to this as our circle’s of ‘concern’ and ‘influence’.  He explains how successful people only focus their energies on things they can influence, such as their own behaviour, whereas unsuccessful people tend to focus their efforts on things they have little control over, such as the weather, national debt, other people’s faults, and the past.  Successful people only concern themselves with the things they can influence in their circle of concern, and leave the rest in the hands of the gods.

Time to stop hiding?

Have you ever had something you’ve been putting off doing for months, (see tax returns, loft clearances and dental extractions) and then finally summoned the resources to do it, and afterwards wondered what all the fuss was about?  In my experience the majority of worries and problems fall into this ‘what was I so worried about’ category.

If we’re honest with ourselves, it was probably because we feared that something was going to go wrong in some way, and that by putting it off we could delay that fear coming true.  After all why would we put off facing something if we thought it was going to be a pleasant experience.  I don’t recall ever putting off eating tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream that’s been sitting in my freezer…

The reason newspapers sell..

The human mind has built in to it something we call the ‘negativity bias’ (also known as the ‘negativity effect’) This refers to the notion that things of a more negative nature have a greater effect on our psychological state than neutral or positive things.  Basically what this means is that we tend to notice more bad stuff than good stuff.

To highlight this point, I want you to consider for a moment how many times you’ve seen passers by slow down in their cars on the motorway to get a view of a road traffic accident?  Now compare this to the number of times you’ve witnessed queues of cars halting to observe a stunning sunset.

Due to the negativity bias, when we let our minds wander, they are more naturally inclined to drift towards negative things than nice things.  This negativity bias used to serve our prehistoric ancestors well and keep them from harm, but it kind of hinders us nowadays, as we are always looking out for things going wrong.  Usually inaccurately as well.

Stop catastrophising

French philosopher Montaigne said “There were many terrible things in my life, and most of them never happened”.  How true. Due to this ‘negativity bias’ we often assume the worst, but when we turn towards our life’s difficulties and worries we can often find that they don’t exist, or are far much less daunting an obstacle than we had imagined.

A gold medal for worrying

I used to be the world’s greatest worrier.  My mind was constantly flooded with scenarios I’d imagine were going to go wrong.  This left me no time to be in the present, as I was constantly projecting into the future, where all hell was apparently going to break loose…

Of course, it rarely did, and with constant effort I eventually learnt to shine the torch directly at the monsters under my bed.  The result was that more often than not, I found that there were no such monsters there.  Or if there was anything there, it was the problem equivalent of a shoe or a sock I’d lost a few months back, but definitely no ghouls and goblins.  These problems were simply never as bad as I’d been anticipating.

Take your thoughts to court

I find it very useful to put my worrisome thoughts on trial and attempt to disprove them.  Often our opinions are so obscured by the belief systems we built up in large part during our early lives, that we regularly make errors in judgement about ourselves an the way the world works.  So by testing whether my beliefs and thoughts about things would stand up in a court of law, I regularly find out it wouldn’t have taken Ally Mcbeal to throw my case out of court due to a lack of real evidence.

By questioning our beliefs about a situation we end up getting a more objective view and feeling quite a bit better about the whole thing.  In the very least, we get a more realistic outlook.  Doing this is a bit like reading all of the newspapers to find out the details of a celebrity scandal, rather than just relying on the Daily Star.  You get a more objective outlook.

Wasting useful mental energy?

Most of the time we simply worry unnecessarily.  And by unnecessarily I mean that we worry when there’s no action that we can take at that moment in time, so our worry is a waste of energy.  This distracts us from the present moment, which is in fact the only moment we can control, and which also will soon become our past, and can affect our future.  So, much smarter to focus our energies on the present where we can make a real difference.

Let’s stop victimising our minds

A good way to look at it is the more more time we spend obsessing over the future, the more likely we are to experience anxiety, and the more past-focused we let ourselves become, the more we put ourselves at risk of depression.

I think some smart biblical bloke was talking about worry when he said “take no thought for the morrow”.  I’d like to think the deeper meaning was to keep your attention in the present, and only think about problems when you can take some practical action on them.  Why not try it for a few days and see how you feel…
Jonathan Pittam
Corporate Resilience & Wellbeing Coach, Consultant, Writer, Speaker



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