A post by guest-blogger, Dr Hannah Roberts.
One of the problems my clients often report is feeling destabilised by certain people. Usually they will be strong characters, confrontational or even aggressive in their approach, or the person will be in a position hierarchically above them. Destabilisation takes the form of pre-empting the situation, running through all of the what ifs (what if this happens? Then, what?), until the worst-case scenario becomes a perceived inevitability.
Sometimes the worry unfolds during a situation. For example, worrying so much about what to say in a meeting, it takes away from being fully present, making responding in the moment that bit more challenging. Finally, my personal favourite: rumination. After a situation has occurred, going over and over it in my mind, being so preoccupied with interpreting what happened, often to the point of catastrophe. The problem with all of this is the inordinate amount of time and energy it takes, alongside being consumed by thoughts, and therefore not fully present in life.
It can often feel like the destabilising person has negative intentions towards us. What if our default was that people inherently have good intentions towards us and they are doing the best they can do with the resources available to them at that time? That doesn’t mean people will behave differently but it is easier to handle when we know that they are doing their best with the life experiences they have had, and their current level of awareness and personal development.
There is one caveat to this: narcissists. According to Dr Craig Malkin, author of Rethinking Narcissism, narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) affects only about 1% of the population, a figure that has remained about the same since the term was established in 1968. They will deliberately go out to hurt others by taking power in subtle and some not-so-subtle ways, such as refusing to speak to you at times or even over praising to detract from their own feelings of vulnerability.
The stories we tell ourselves
Most likely though, the destabilisation does not originate in the form of power plays from other people; it is a conflict within ourselves. I was on holiday a couple of weeks ago for my friends beautiful wedding in Mallorca. We decided I would travel alone rather than as a family because, at the time of booking, the covid situation was still so uncertain. I was really enjoying being on holiday with all of my friends, when I overheard snippets of conversations along the lines of, “wouldn’t it be great to all go on holiday again next year?”. I saw my friend shushing him. In that moment, I believed that it was because they all wanted to go on holiday without me. Why else would you shush someone? I felt rejected and upset. I ruminated on that moment, not intensely, but it was on my mind on and off for a couple of weeks. With all the personal development work I have done, I could see what I was doing to myself.
“Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space, is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and freedom.” – Victor Frankl
I was making up my own elaborate story, and the only real truth within all of that was that I was on holiday with my friends. Everything else was a story attached to that one truth. Rather than feel hurt, rejected and pull away from the friendship, I decided to speak to my friend about what I had heard and seen. Yes, everyone loved the holiday as much as me, and definitely wanted to repeat it. They would never go on a friends’ holiday without inviting me and, as for the shush? Who knows? Perhaps it was the movement of arms batting away a flying insect! It could have been anything, but certainly wasn’t my version of reality. That conversation brought us even closer together and made me realise the importance of continuously challenging our stories.
In fact, we are always in a moment of interpretation, so the vast majority of what we think isn’t actually the truth! A moment occurs and we make a meaning out of that moment based on a number of different inputs:
- Have we met our basic needs for sleep, water, food, exercise, alone time and connection time? I know that, after a lack of sleep, I will have a much more negative outlook than if I’ve had eight hours sleep and am feeling epic!
- Dr Louann Brizendine, author of The Female Brain, reports that when faced with the same situation at different phases of our menstrual cycle, we will interpret them differently. If you are naturally cycling, the most important time to consider is around a week before menstruation. Progesterone and oestrogen plummet, testosterone falls rapidly slightly later and the net result is feeling of being on edge and needing everything to be decided, cleared and sorted. Very different to our ovulation phase when oestrogen and testosterone peaks, progesterone is climbing, and all is well with the world.
- If the moment in question causes a conflict with our values, then we will naturally create a negative story association. I have a strong value for integrity and, if someone asks me to do something that sits outside my ethical framework, I start to worry about all of the what ifs.
- Some of the biggest inputs are the limiting beliefs we hold about ourselves. These are things that we hold to be true, and they limit our experience of life. For example: I’m not good enough, I don’t know enough, there’s something wrong with me, I’m not worthy. Even “I’m too busy” is a belief.
- A strong religious or spiritual connection can cause conflicts between the situation and the belief system.
An emotion is quickly attached to the meaning created, and then an action is taken based on how a person thinks and feels about themselves. The cycle is continuous, which is why one moment can result in escalation of negativity over a number of hours or even days.
The decision tree
Every thought is a decision point. It is a choice. Do I choose to continue down the path of pre-empting, worrying or rumination, or do I choose to challenge that thought with the truth? The truth is literal and always very short. I am responding to my email; going to dance class for the first time in twenty years; I’m in a meeting or, in my case, sitting round the swimming pool on holiday. Everything else is the story attached to the truth. I can usually challenge the story myself, but if you can’t, find someone else to help you do that. You might be pleasantly surprised with the results. Once the thought is challenged, you get to continue to have a great day ahead rather than the spiral of negativity.
Completing the emotional cycle
It’s not just enough to think our way out of the cycle though, we must also release the emotions attached to the thoughts. In the book Burnout, by sisters Emily and Amelia Nagoski, they talk about the need to complete the emotional stress cycle. If you were chased by a tiger that had escaped from the zoo, it would trigger your flight or fight response. If the zoo keeper caught the tiger and removed the threat, that doesn’t mean that the adrenaline and cortisol coursing through your body suddenly disappears. We actively have to do something to release emotions.
For fear, anxiety or panic, my favourite thing to do is shake it out. Take each part of your body in turn and shake it, best done to African drumming music, in my opinion.
For anger, jealousy or envy, roll up a clean towel, put it between your teeth and scream. You will feel your stomach contracting and a sensation of getting the anger out of your body. Punching a pillow works well; one of my clients even bought a baseball bat for hitting her mattress. Much healthier than keeping it bottled up inside and damaging our internal system, or letting it out and punching a wall. Anger is a secondary emotion which masks the primary emotion; so often underneath all of the anger is a lot of hurt.
For sadness, upset, hurt and grief, crying is our body’s natural way of releasing. Give yourself the permission. Any change of state will help: go from inside to outside, from static to movement. Do not stay stuck in the emotional tunnel; you must come out of the other end and complete the stress cycle.
A character trait
If you are thinking “this is just how I am. I’m an anxious person so this will not work for me”, it’s time to rethink that assumption. Ask yourself, when did you decide you were an anxious person? Was there ever a time that wasn’t the truth? Really challenge yourself. Were you anxious even as a baby? Unless there is a pathology or traumatic family situation, the answer is almost certainly no. What is the consequence of you believing this to be a character trait rather than a learnt behaviour? If you believed wholeheartedly that you were worthy and enough, what would happen in those moments instead?
Challenge and overcome
Pre-empting, worrying and ruminating are symptoms of overthinking, which can become a habitual way of being, if not challenged. Over five years ago, I started using the technique of truth vs story and I needed to use it A LOT. More recently, I can only think of two situations this year that I have had to challenge using this technique. Over time, it becomes unnecessary, or an unconscious process. Your thoughts shape your reality and how you feel about yourself. To change those self-sabotaging stories, it all starts with awareness. Indeed, no behavioural change can proceed without it.
If you would like to find the first glimmer of awareness, take the time to re-establish connection with yourself daily by being in the present moment. A mindful minute three times a day is an excellent way to get started.
Hannah is a ICF PCC certified coach and host of the top 10 UK podcast > 30K downloads, ‘Women in STEM Career & Confidence’. She helps STEM Women to be intentional in their careers by unlocking their full potential. Download her free guide to moving beyond imposter syndrome here.