08/06/2016

To See The Bright Side, You Have To Look For It

It’s hard to stay focused on work. It’s hard to be positive. It’s hard to be a catalyst or a change maker. It’s hard to stay in it.

Life is hard. I find myself talking to people over and over and over again about just how hard it is. And we are inundated with messages, news stories, and realities that make things even harder. When we think about how broken the world feels and how overwhelming current events feel, we are fooling ourselves if we don’t expect these feelings to come to work with us and everyone else.

And it’s not just hopelessness we’re feeling. We’re also feeling angry and frustrated, and many of us are deeply concerned about the state of world, the state of the political climate, our future, and our economic situation. Things are chaotic right now. They feel out of control. And each one of us probably struggles in some way with our inability to do anything about it.

Regaining Some Control

We can’t make things go away or get better, but we can think critically about how we react to them and practice a different way of thinking about them.

Albert Ellis, an American psychologist, developed Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), a way of taking care of your emotional self. According to REBT, it is largely how we think about events — more than the events themselves — that leads to emotional and behavioral upset.

One of the ideas he pioneered within REBT is the ABC concept. “A” represents the activating event — the thing that happens and causes you to feel or react in a particular way. This could be a political situation, an exchange you had with someone at work, or a thought inside your own head. “B” represents what we believe about the activating event. So if the activating event was a conversation you had, your belief might be that you sounded dumb when you asked that one question. And “C” represents the consequences that will come about as a result of the activating event and your particular beliefs about it.

You can see how the Bs are a really rich part of this model. Imagine that you didn’t believe you sounded dumb and instead, you believed that your question was valid and smart. The consequence of believing it was a dumb question might be shame, embarrassment, or feeling “less than.” The consequence of believing it was a valid and smart question might be confidence, satisfaction, or worthiness.

Our beliefs around events or situations are an amalgam of explicit and implicit philosophical meanings, assumptions about people or events, our own personal desires and insecurities, and any and all preferences or biases we have. That’s a lot of stuff that isn’t easy to unpack or understand. According to REBT, if a person’s set of beliefs about an activating event is rigid, absolutistic, fictional and dysfunctional, the emotional and behavioral consequence is likely to be self-defeating and destructive. Alternatively, if a person’s belief is preferential, flexible, and constructive, the emotional and behavioral consequence is likely to be self-helping and constructive.

It’s in believing that we understand the activating event and in then predicting consequences based on an often-times irrational understanding of the event that creates overwhelm. If this, then that. For sure. Without stopping to piece apart all the beliefs feeding that cycle.

Those Bs sure are b*tches

Now, I’m no therapist, but in the tough love I deliver and in the talks that I do, I find myself reminding people that we all have little demons inside our heads that feed us commentary. They remind us about our incompetencies or our shortcomings, and feed us a steady stream of all the possible negative outcomes of any given situation. That’s our self-talk. It’s the conversation we let happen in our subconscious that creates our anxiety. And believe it or not, you have control over that conversation.

Self-talk, Self-care, self-talk, self-care…on repeat

When things get tough and we bring it to work or we have a hard time focusing, or we’re wearing our stress like a suit, what do we do? We have to take care of ourselves. And it starts with adjusting our self-talk. We can believe that things will turn our horribly or we can believe that they will be fine. We can believe that we’re doomed or we can believe that we can create an effective plan. “One of the main objectives in REBT is to show that whenever unpleasant and unfortunate activating events occur in people’s lives, they have a choice of making themselves feel healthily and self-helpingly sorry, disappointed, frustrated, and annoyed, or making themselves feel unhealthily and self-defeatingly horrified, terrified, panicked, depressed, self-hating and self-pitying. By attaining and ingraining a more rational and self-constructive philosophy of themselves, others and the world, people often are more likely to behave and emote in more life-serving and adaptive ways.” Be upset, but don’t panic. Feeling things is good, but letting those feelings overtake everything else is not.

Humans are weird. When we’re feeling down or victimized, we often make ourselves feel worse by perpetuating negative thinking. In fact, our default is to be negative. We catastrophize. It’s easier. It’s easier to point out things that are broken or wrong. It’s harder to look at things and say, “I have control over this. I can make a tiny change that will make the outcome of this situation feel different.” It is hard to say, “I am going to be proactive instead of reactive.” It’s hard to come to work each day saying, “I am going to be a positive voice in a meeting. I am going to go the extra mile to make things easier on my colleagues.” But you can do that. You can show up smiling, and ask people how they’re doing and really listen to them. You can be engaged with your work, with your community, with the people around you. And self-care is how we get there.

Practice self-care. Focus on priorities: family, health, recreational time. Create the head space to be able to believe appropriately. Maybe it’s yoga, walking, going to see shows, or connecting with your community. Focus on what you can do. Surround yourself with people who want to feel powerful, not victimized. Maybe that includes volunteering or becoming a member of a movement instead of being a spectator. Whatever it looks like for you, self-care is a critical component of changing your “Bs” — your beliefs — about the outcomes, the consequences.

There are so many ways you can contribute to the health and wellbeing of the people around you, and they aren’t huge things. Many are simple. But we forget that because we get caught up in the overwhelm. We forget that a smile can change the energy in a room. We forget that caring about people doesn’t have to be a distraction.

Times are tough right now. But if you think about history, there aren’t any times when people didn’t have big concerns. There isn’t a moment in history that hasn’t been scary for one reason or another. We live in hopeful times — it’s up to us to maintain that hope and to fuel the hope for us and everyone around us. If our “B” has us defeated then that is what will happen. But if we are mindful and aware of what we can do to change energy, and put forth effort, we can change how things feel, a little bit at a time.

We can be rigid and self-defeating, or we can be flexible and constructive. What do you want to be?

Additional Albert Ellis/Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy Resources
The Albert Ellis Institute
Short summary and description of REBT on Psych Central