Dr Helen Street
All that we are arises within our thoughts, with our thoughts we make the world (Buddha)
Being someone who has spent many years teaching ultra bright students, I have certainly experienced the total, woeful distress of tearful adolescents upset about their coursework marks. On many of these occasions the mark in question is neither that important, nor is it really that bad. My ‘putting things into perspective’ talk then follows when I try to assure my tearful students that their unwanted marks will not unduly impact on the final outcome of their studies.
It is at times like these when it is worth remembering that the real cause of my students’ distress lies not in the presence of a bad mark, but in their interpretation of what that mark means to them and to their future. And so it is with all of life. Life events do not make us happy or unhappy in themselves. Rather it is the perception and interpretation of life that creates our emotional reaction and guides our behaviour.
When we see a student seemingly over-reacting to a situation, we can be confident that they are reacting in line with their perception of the situation.
And so it is for us adults.
Some of you may see a disruptive class as a sign that you are a terrible teacher, and this understandably creates self doubt and distress. However, others of you may see the same situation as a sign that everyone is tired on Friday afternoons. This second, equally viable interpretation, enables you to maintain confidence in yourselves and your abilities.
There is no single right or wrong way to see life, rather there are many valid perceptions and interpretations for any given situation. Some interpretations are healthy in that they result in a healthy emotional reaction and productive behaviour. Other interpretations are unhealthy in that they create disabling emotional reactions and unhelpful behaviour. This is not to say that we can or should always view events as ‘rose tinted’ or ‘silver lined’. It is to state that sometimes ‘terrible’ events may more helpfully be interpreted as merely disappointing.
When life is busy and overloaded it becomes easy to fall into the habit of perceiving life in unhelpful ways. Like my upset student, we are more likely to catastrophise. We are also more likely to attribute negative events to ourselves (we are more likely to blame ourselves for that class disruption) rather than accepting that the environment may also play a part (Students are tired on Friday afternoons).
We are also more likely to focus on any single negative aspects of a situation (the parent who complained about your new approach to maths), as opposed to the many positive aspects (how much your students embraced your ideas in the classroom).
We could easily liken these comments to the proverbial wine glass being half full as opposed to half empty. Yet, this is far more that a distinction between optimism and pessimism. It is about the interpretation of our vision in useful and helpful terms. At times the glass is half full and that is great. At other times is may appear half empty, but this does not mean we have to believe we will go thirsty or that life is against us. An unwanted situation does not have to signify absolute failure.
Some of us are happily born with optimistic characters. Those of us who are more cautious can still effectively interpret life in healthy and helpful ways.
The key to developing healthy perceptions is twofold. First, we need to embrace the idea that there is always more than one interpretation for any given situation. Reality is flexible, varied and only as true as we allow it to be. Second, we need to learn how to disengage with unhelpful perceptions before they take hold of our emotions and behaviour.
This first challenge is simply a matter of knowing; the second is far more a matter of practice. For example, we may understand that there is more than one way to perceive our failure to gain promotion, however, it can still very hard to stop thinking about this in wholly negative terms. In fact, as soon as we ‘try not to think’ about something, we actually increase our engagement with the very thought we are trying to rid ourselves of. A bit like trying NOT to think about pink elephants. If you try this, even for just a few seconds, it becomes almost impossible not to think about a flash of pink trunk or a large letter ‘E’… We can not ‘force away’ our unhelpful thoughts with sheer will power or dogged determination. Disengaging with unhelpful thoughts requires an attention shift to a healthier alternative. Rather than trying not to think about pink elephants, we need to think about blue hippos. Instead of trying not to think about what is wrong, we need to think about what is right. If we concentrate and develop the thoughts we want to embrace, the ones that are no good for us will dissipate on their own.
To ensure that negative perceptions do not control you, your emotions and your behaviour, watch out for them when life is calm. This gives you the opportunity to divert your attention to more positive possibilities before you feel upset. Try placing stickers around your environment and then use them as a cue to check your thoughts. For example, if you notice a smiley face on the steering wheel as you drive home from work, check what you are thinking. If you are ruminating about how much your stressed out colleague appears to hate your every move,
consider that they may be angry for reasons that are nothing to do with you.
We cannot snap our fingers and change our mood, suddenly appear unflappable or care free. Yet, we really can learn to create a healthy perception of the world around us. Healthy perceptions help us to feel positive and to function well in every situation.
Dr Helen Street is an applied social psychologist with a passion for wellbeing in education. She presents seminars and workshops for schools. Helen is also chair of The Positive Schools Conferences (www.positiveschools.com.au)