I was recently lying on my back, floating in an orb filled with salt water (aka Float Therapy) when my hands and feet kept hitting the edges of the tank. Each time I bumped into the walls of the orb I felt the heat of irritation rise within me. I angrily pushed away from the wall only to collide with the opposite wall mere moments later.
This scene continued to play out for a while. My reactions made the water choppy, which caused my collisions with the walls to be even more forceful. As a result, my sense of peace and serenity was usurped.
This was not the relaxing, decompressing, stress relieving experience I had hoped for. What's more, my reactions were not helping matters.
Seeing myself bubble over with frustration time and time again to no avail, I wondered, "What if I chose to stop reacting so strongly?"
So that's what I did. I stopped over-reacting whenever I bumped into the wall and as a result, the water calmed down. As long as I wasn't making waves, I experienced the relaxation and peacefulness I so desired. I still brushed up against the edges of the tank but it didn't have the same jarring effect as it did in the beginning.
This experience reminded me a lot of navigating relationships and conversations.
One of my clients had been struggling with a particularly difficult colleague. While they were technically peers, my client was often given more responsibility and autonomy than her counter-part. This made her feel really uncomfortable - she was caught between not wanting to upset her peer while also not fully trusting he would get the work done on their shared projects (based on past experiences).
This turned into a big source of stress, one that caused her to worry instead of sleeping at night. Every interaction they had resulted in my client feeling unsteady. She was both projecting her on concerns while internalizing her colleague's faltering career success. My client's reaction was making waves that created more friction, tension and discomfort in their interactions.
As she brought these concerns to me, we processed the situation and interaction dynamics by separating the fact from the fiction. The facts were, my client was responsible for leading a project and her colleague needed to be an active contributor. While my client didn't like this arrangement (the story she told herself constituted the fiction), these expectations were made explicitly know by the CEO. What's more, my client was responsible for delivering a new system, while her colleague was responsible for implementing it. Articulating this distinction was incredibly valuable.
As we teased apart the facts from the fiction, my client experienced a sense of relief. She no longer reacted to stories she was telling herself. Instead she did the work, showing care and concern for her colleague without taking on the dysfunction present. Ultimately, my client shifted how she showed up. This was partly informed by redefining her definition of success around the project. She focused more on the pieces she could control and worried less about her colleague's contributions (or lack thereof) - after all, it's the CEO's job to set performance expectations related to the project for her peer!
So often, when we are in the midst of a challenging situation with co-workers, family or friends, we make matters worse by making waves with our over-reactions. This is fueled by the feelings and thoughts the situation triggers within us. Something about the current situation feels familiar to past circumstances. Our brains are always scanning for the presence or absence of safety in relationship to what we've experienced before. As a result there are certain instances where familiar feelings = bad.
In the book, How Emotions are Made, Lisa Feldman Barrett notes, "Your past experiences...give meaning to your present sensations." My client was the responsible kid in her family. Any time something needed to get done, she was the one expected to make sure it happened. Her siblings would goof around, and she would make up for their lack of contribution. The situation with her co-worker felt eerily similar to her family dynamics.
When our current circumstances feel familiar our brains simulate the outcome. Barrett explains, "Simulations are your brain's guesses of what's happening in the world." Barrett postulates that our emotions aren't reactions to triggers, but a response to our anticipation of what's to come, or simulations., informed by past experiences
When we over-react to circumstances, it's because we are fixating on our simulations or the story we're telling ourselves. In this instance my client was reacting to her childhood experiences when her mother vocalized disappointment in her, not her boss nor her co-worker. My client was once again in a situation where she felt saddled by a responsibility too great for her to bear all alone. But this was work, not her family, and she gained nothing by internalizing unrealistic expectations of herself.
As my client returned to this situation, she decided to keep herself centered in the present moment rather than be weighed down by her past experiences. She articulated her boundaries and expectations for this project. And she let go of the pieces she could not control. At the same time, she mindfully engaged in conversations with her peer, practicing Listening to Connect and Double Clicking to ensure the two of them had a shared understanding of what needed to be done and by whom. Ultimately, she stopped reacting to her own fears, which meant she wasn't making waves. Her responses were measured to match the needs and as a result, she felt less stress and worried.
Do you want to take back control and stop making waves? Let's talk!