Welcome to part 2 of my three-part series on the 3 Keys to Successfully Making a Change.
In our first post, we talked about getting into the right mindset and creating a framework. If you haven’t read that one yet, be sure to check it out, as this post will expand on those ideas and go deeper.
Step #2 Defining Our Thoughts & Emotions
Once you’ve identified a change you want to make, how can you best approach it? One common obstacle is that we get overly focused on the outcome.
Change is not a single event. For example, I stepped on the scale and the number is 15 lbs lighter. Or, I received a promotion. Change involves a series of events, a process, a building of momentum that leads to a shift that is noticeable to ourselves and sometimes others.
This end result is not where the richness lies, the real accomplishments are in the journey. Like climbing to a mountain peak or driving 500 miles to visit a friend, each step taken or mile driven is essential to reach that summit or your friend’s doorstep.
Iceberg Model: What We Achieve Is Driven By How We Think and Feel
The Iceberg Model is a useful model for looking at change.
90% of an iceberg’s mass lies below the waterline. Human beings are much the same. Our focus on outcomes, like losing 15 pounds or getting promoted, discounts the bulk of the effort, which is below the surface. Others do not know exactly what we are thinking or feeling because those thoughts and emotions are held deep in our subconscious.
Oftentimes, we ourselves are not clear on our own thoughts and feelings, but they are there. The more awareness we can bring to our thoughts and emotions, the greater likelihood we have of making the change we wish to make.
When it comes to our thoughts, there are generally two issues that come up, lack of awareness and negativity bias. Let’s look at both.
Many times, our thoughts just “appear” in our heads without us even trying, showing up without warning, and often we take them as truths even though we know better.
Maybe we don’t speak up in a meeting, not really knowing why. Later we realize we were actually thinking something like “maybe my idea wasn’t a good one” or “they won’t be interested in what I have to say.”
Becoming aware of our thoughts is an important first step, because our thoughts become our beliefs, and our beliefs drive our actions.
Take some quiet time to reflect and ask yourself these questions:
- What thoughts am I having that are not helping me make the change I want?
- When do these thoughts occur? Am I doing a specific activity? Spending time with a particular person?
- What are the patterns within these thoughts? (i.e. I have this thought when I am in certain situations, etc)
Negativity bias is a sneaky thought pattern we all have but don’t really think about consciously. It’s when the pain of losing something, say, a $20 bill, is greater than the excitement of finding a $20 bill on the street.
“The mind is like Velcro for negative experiences,” psychologist Rick Hanson is fond of saying, “and Teflon for positive ones.”
We are all like this. Our brains are constantly scanning our environment for threats, and our mind is much more attuned to them. We see things or circumstances as either a threat or a reward. Credit that to our caveman days when you had to watch out for sabertooth tigers, lest you get eaten!
In today’s world, many threats are more social than physical. We’re not usually threatened with being eaten by a lion or a bear, but having our idea shot down in a meeting or being excluded from the group can feel like our tribe has cast us out. We are left feeling uncertain and small.
As we work to create change, we may be faced with some of these social threats. The naysayers in our lives may come out of the woodwork. There will be times of discomfort, even failure. The first time we try something new and don’t excel, negative thoughts will come up.
To keep moving forward, it’s important to take stock of your thoughts, and become aware of what they are, when they show up, and any associated patterns. Once we do this, we can begin the work of reframing them into more positive and supportive ones.
As with thoughts, similar issues arise when it comes to our emotions. Only this time, the lack of awareness regarding our feelings is paired with a lack of language to express them.
Emotions can come up faster and stronger than even thoughts, causing us to feel strongly and sometimes leading us to lash out at others or ourselves. To bring awareness to them, we must take a step back and go through the same process as we do with our thoughts.
When strong emotions come up, take a moment to pause, breathe, and ask yourself these questions:
- What emotions am I having and why? Really peel back the layers here by asking “why” more than once or twice to get to the root of the issue.
- When do these emotions occur? Am I doing a specific activity? Spending time with a particular person? What triggered them?
- What are the patterns with these emotions? (i.e. I always get angry/sad/frustrated when…”
Being aware of our emotions is one thing, but we really need to be able to give them a name. Since 2006, Brene Brown and her team have done research asking people to write down the names of emotions they can recognize in themselves and others. Shockingly, the average number of emotions that people could identify is three; commonly, “bad, sad, and glad”.
Even if we are aware that we have an emotion (in the moment), we often don’t have the ability to label it. Therefore we can’t understand it or deal with it effectively.
With “bad” or “sad” being two out of the three most people can name, what does that say about how we might feel as we try to institute change in our lives? If we don’t realize success right away, it can feel like an uphill battle. But it doesn’t have to be.
When we give language to something, we shift the power back to ourselves and can address the emotion head-on. Words are powerful. And for emotions, words can actually have a calming effect on the brain.
Try it next time you feel strongly and see what happens. Say “I feel <insert emotion>”. Talk it through. Notice how you feel after saying it out loud. Did it change the intensity of the feeling?
In the last post of this series, we’ll learn some techniques to help us learn to manage our thoughts and emotions and turn them into an advantage. We can use them to help us make changes. Having the right tools makes all the difference.