July 22, 2012

I Object

Sometimes it feels good to get really mad--especially when you know you're in the right. We've all had the experience of being so wronged and feeling so furious that we feel like we just have to get it out. When the bank freezes our credit card even though we conscientiously notified them that we were traveling internationally, when our partner promises and then fails to put away the laundry for the third night in a row, when the renovation contractor consistently arrives late, we feel justified in our anger and it's a relief to tell someone off.

The problem is, this isn't always the best strategy. In fact, if we think in terns of objectives, it's often a bad strategy. Consider a few examples:

1) I recently had the experience of being so angry at my banking institution that as I dialed the customer service centre, I was practically shaking with excitement to let loose my righteous indignation. I raged at the customer service representative--which felt good in the moment--but when we hung up, my account was still frozen and the bank rep didn't seem too motivated to get to the bottom of the error. I had been so pumped up with righteousness that I failed to consider my objective: more than letting the bank know how I felt, I wanted access to my account. Did my behaviour facilitate the achievement of my goal? Not at all! I called back the customer service agent and apologized. It was embarrassing but by the time I ended the second call, the customer service rep was relaxed, apologetic, and eager to help. She promised to resolve the problem and call  me the next day (which she did!).

2) My friend's landlord has been consistently rude, picky about absurd details of the lease, and overall difficult to deal with. He recently raised the rent by $200 in a blatant attempt to get her to move out. My friend was livid; she decided not to renew the lease, and drafted a long email to the landlord detailing each episode in which he came over without calling, failed to complete repairs in a timely manner, or was otherwise unreasonable or non-compliant with the lease. I read the draft and asked her the key question: what are your objectives in this situation? My friend replied that she wanted to get her damage deposit back, use the landlord as a reference for her next apartment, and make sure he knew that he was a jerk. We reviewed the congruence between her actions (the email) and her objectives and decided that the email served only the third--and least important--objective. She decided that she wanted her damage deposit back and a good reference more than she needed to tell off the landlord, and decided not to send the email.

3) I had a client whose partner consistently worked late, leaving her alone in the evenings. My client felt hurt and sad and angry, and would repeatedly burst into tears the minute her partner walked in the door. I asked her the question: what are your objectives in this situation? When she replied that her goals were for her partner to realize how upset she was, and for him to come home earlier, I asked her how her partner usually responded to tears. When she replied that his usual reaction was to withdraw, she realized that it was time to rethink her strategy. By crying, she was achieving one of her goals (letting him know she was upset) but distancing herself from her second and more important goal. By reviewing her objectives, she was able to come up with a different strategy: talking to her partner about the problem--without tears--on the weekend.

In any situation--but in particular when we feel indignant and righteous--reviewing goals before acting can be a good idea. Simply letting out feelings isn't always an effective strategy, and it's risky to assume that others will change their behaviour just because we made our displeasure clear. The next time you find yourself gleefully/vengefully anticipating letting out your feelings or telling someone off, take a minute to consider what you're actually hoping for in the situation. You might end up changing your strategy!

July 16, 2012

Stress Reduction Mantras

In April 2011, I posted mental health mantras--phrases you can repeat to yourself during difficult times. Here are my 2012 mantras, designed specifically to help in those moments when you're amplifying your own stress unnecessarily:

1) You don't need to like everything. This is something you can tell yourself when you're having a tantrum (out loud or in your mind) because you don't like the new duvet cover your partner bought, or you're in the mood for sushi but your friends want to order pizza, or your secretary booked you on a 7am flight. If you're saying to yourself but I don't like beige, I don't like pizza, I don't like getting up early, consider that it's not necessary to like every single thing that happens, and that people deal with things they don't like all the time. Maybe your partner didn't like the paint colour you picked for the bathroom, or your friends didn't like the restaurant you picked for your birthday dinner. Remembering that no one gets to like everything can help you laugh at yourself a little and snap out of your huff.

2) I can do hard things. This is for when it's time to ask your intimidating boss for a raise, when you're packing to move for the fifth time in two years, or when you're living alone after the end of a long relationship, and all you can think about is how hard it's going to be. Certain things are hard and rather than telling yourself they won't be, try reminding yourself that hard is something you can do.

3) This is the fun part. This is for when you can't wait until your child is out of diapers, until you finish your degree, or until your new home is all painted and set up, and you're stressing yourself out trying to get there as quickly as you can. This is the fun part can help you slow down and connect with the excitement or pleasure of the process, making toilet training, earning a degree, and shopping and decorating less stressful and more fun. (For things that just plain aren't fun, see number four.)

4) This is part of it. This is for when you're excited to send your mom the perfect birthday gift you found but get stuck in an endless line at the post office, when you're going on a road trip but get caught in Friday afternoon traffic, or when you're registering for a course online using an absurdly non-user-friendly website. Dealing with waiting, traffic, and poorly designed Web systems become much more bearable if you can adjust your perception of them: rather than preventing you from sending the gift, getting out of town, and registering for your course, they're simply part of sending the gift, getting out of town, and registering. 

I hope these help--keep me posted!