We all know them.
They’re the sorts who, after they’ve dropped the ball, go to great lengths to assure us it wasn’t their fault and deflect the blame to some other poor schmuck. The saddest thing about this kind of person is the utter transparency of their efforts. Usually, the fault is so obvious that their efforts to duck responsibility would be humorous if they weren’t so pitiful.
The one thing we all have in common with this poor sap is that we screw up. Regularly. And sometimes in a really big way. What separates us is what we do after we step in the doo-doo.
Who would you rather spend time with: The person who makes a mistake, then tells you why it wasn’t really a mistake, why it doesn’t matter and why it actually wasn’t their fault? Or the person who comes to you, tells you they’ve made a mistake (often before you find out on your own) and tells you what they’re going to do to fix it?
Yeah, we’d all rather hang out with that person too.
When you try to hide a problem you’ve created or deflect the blame elsewhere, the trust that others have in you disappears. But when you step up and face the music, your credibility takes a huge leap. “If she’s being honest with me about this, I’ve got to believe she’s going to be honest with me about everything.” It doesn’t feel very good in the moment, but the long-term benefits are enormous.
Sure it’s embarrassing to screw up. We all want to appear to be perfect and our egos take a big hit when we fall short of the mark. Our first instinct is to hide and hope no one notices. But then, when someone does notice, our second instinct is to make excuses or point the finger elsewhere. Every one of these actions simply digs the hole deeper, making it that much harder to climb out in the end. As much as it goes against your survival instincts, resist the temptation to duck, cover up or deflect. It makes you look like the two-year old who covers his eyes and thinks that nobody can see him.
Your friends, your family, your co-workers – they all know you’re not infallible. They know you’re going to make mistakes. And they love you anyway.
When you make that inevitable mistake, that’s the time to show what you’re really made of. Step up right away, tell the truth about what happened, then tell what you’re going to do about it. It isn’t that you screwed up. It’s about what you do after it hits the fan.
When you mess up, ‘fess up. This is a golden opportunity to truly rise into an even better you.
Mountain climbers, tightrope walkers and high steel riggers are always instructed to avoid looking down.
When you’re clinging to the side of a cliff by your fingernail or balancing on a one-inch cable above Niagara Falls, a downward glance can instantly and completely fill your mind with the horrific consequences of falling.
Now, instead of envisioning your arms raised in victory at the summit, or the adulation of the media as you reach the far side, your only thoughts involve a hideous plunge to an even more hideous death.
From this point on, every move is taken, not to achieve victory, but to avoid failure. In the world of competitive sports, you’ve shifted from playing to win, to playing not to lose.
And it never works.
Anxiety is like that. Instead of our minds focusing on joyous thoughts of successful career achievement, financial freedom and loving relationships, we lie awake in the dark, roiling with the imagined ignominy of joblessness, bankruptcy and abandonment. Try as we might, we can’t shake those ominous thoughts about the failure, loss and catastrophe that appear to be looming over our heads, about to crush us like a bug.
I’ve written before about your Reticular Activating System (your RAS). It’s a piece of your brain that’s tasked with filtering out all the noise from the world around you so you can focus on the important stuff.
What’s the ‘important stuff?’
Since there’s is no external, objective filter to tell you what’s vital and what’s trivial your RAS depends on you to let it know what’s important. But it’s not quite as simple as sending a memo.
The RAS simply takes what you think about most and assumes that it’s important to you. So it goes looking for more instances, more examples, more evidence to reinforce the ‘validity’ of what you’re thinking about. Of course, there’s no external, objective measure of ‘validity,’ either so you become a walking, thinking, self-reinforcing feedback loop.
It can be kinda fun to play with your RAS. Close your eyes, think about babies for a few moments, then walk down the street and notice the incredible number of mothers pushing strollers, dads carrying little ones, or toddlers wobbling their way around playgrounds that seem to have appeared out of nowhere. It’s not that they weren’t there before. It’s just that you’ve now programmed your RAS to filter for them and, like the search function on your laptop, it’s dutifully returning the results.
A fun little parlor game.
But your RAS has no ‘Off’ switch.
And when you’re worrying about your finances, your health, your decaying relationship or your job, it’s still on active duty. Your RAS will always – and I mean ALWAYS – take your predominant thoughts, even if they’re about something that frightens you, and go looking for information, people, news items, images, circumstances and any other evidence it can find that matches.
While your RAS is incredibly powerful at its job, it’s actually not very intelligent. While it’s really good at knowing that your predominant thought right now is, “I don’t want to get sick,” all it hears is “SICK.” So it brings back all the evidence it can find for even more ‘sick’ and fills your mind with the results.
Here’s where our mountain climbing friend knows something that we need to learn. There are two sides to every thought – the aspect of it that you want and the aspect that you don’t want.
I don’t want to fall I do want to make it to the summit
I don’t want to get sick I do want to enjoy good health
I don’t want to be lonely I do want to have love in my life
Every thought that focuses on what you don’t want is the equivalent of looking down.
Accomplished worriers spend the majority of their mental energy thinking about what they don’t want, what they hope to avoid, what they fear might happen. And the RAS dutifully goes out and finds more of it.
Most of this goes on below our level of conscious thought, so it’s important to start becoming more mindful of what’s going on in your head throughout the day. When you start paying attention you’re going to see that way too much time is spent dwelling on what you don’t want in your life.
And your always-on RAS shows you more and more of what you don’t want. Which, of course, makes you even more determined to resist the bad thing, which makes the RAS work even harder to find it and put it under your nose. And the downward spiral continues.
The good news is that your RAS is just as obedient if you focus on looking up. When your predominant thoughts are on good health, abundant prosperity, loving relationships and the life that you want to live, it will highlight more things that are going well, point out solutions to your challenges and lead things to consistently improve.
Look down regularly and your RAS will find a thousand ways to have you land at the bottom in a sorry splat. Look up, constantly picturing the summit, and it will show you the path forward every time.
You know them.
They’re the ones who phone or email you regularly. And they always share the bad news.
“Have you heard the latest about the Coronavirus?!!”
“Looks like it’s going to rain again today.”
“I bet the traffic is going to be bad this morning.”
“I think that lump on my arm is growing.”
Emotions, whether good or bad, are contagious. Hang too long around the worry-monger and you’re going to find yourself stressing about the same woes. Even a short chat with a committed complainer can ruin the rest of your day.
But there are other, more subtle and more corrosive side effects, too.
The really huge price of maintaining your membership in the Complaining Club is that it gives away your power to change anything.
Members of the Complaining Club spend an inordinate amount of time finding the culprits, passing judgment and placing blame for the circumstances in which they find themselves. And nothing changes. Have you noticed how their conversations rarely change?
As long as we invest our time, our energy and our emotions in blaming and complaining about how things are, we’ll never be able to stop worrying and move on with creating the lives we want to live.
As soon as you place the blame for your circumstances on someone else, you surrender all your ability to manage and direct your own life. As long as you believe that someone else’s behavior is responsible for your situation and emotional state, you’ve handed all your ability to change things over to them. Because unless they decide to change the way they’re acting, your situation will remain exactly the same.
Now, admittedly, it could very well be that someone else’s actions resulted in your circumstances. Your company was acquired and you were downsized. Your girlfriend fell out of love with you and left. The City passed a new ordinance and you can no longer keep chickens in your backyard. Expecting them to or insisting that they change the way they behave in order to please you, though, is a fool’s game. It’s simply not going to happen.
It’s both tempting and easy to blame CNN, Facebook, the politicians or your parents for whatever is happening around you. But it does you no good at all. Because, at the end of the day, it’s you who is doing the worrying, you who is losing sleep and you who is suffering the high blood pressure. Since none of the rest of them are stepping up to bring an end to your anxiety, if it’s going to happen, it’s up to you.
The first step is to resign your membership in the Complaining Club. The other members are the people in your life who can simply walk into the room and completely drain you of energy. They bring the tension, the stress and the anxiety with them and they love to share it around.
Avoid those people who drag you down. Stay away from the ones who always bring the conversation back to what’s wrong. And in those times when you can’t avoid the worry-monger, keep the chat short and follow it immediately with an uplifting treat for yourself.
Step two is to actively seek out the ones who lift you up and make you feel alive. There are others in your life, too. They point out the beautiful blue sky and the elderly couple holding hands. They pass along the good news and the uplifting stories. They’re the ones who always leave you feeling better than you did before they came. And they’re not just Pollyanna. They bring the genuine energy, the enthusiasm, the optimism and the encouragement.
All emotions are contagious. Run from the toxic ones and seek out and breathe deeply from the uplifting ones.
Blaming or complaining about the government, the weather, the traffic, big corporations, your spouse, your kids, your parents or anyone or anything else that appears to be the source of your discomfort might feel good for a while because it takes the responsibility off your shoulders.
But therein lies the problem. When you pin the blame on a person or circumstance outside yourself, you also surrender any opportunity to make things better. Because as long as the government, the weather, big pharma or your mother continue to behave as they do, you’re stuck. By assuming 100% responsibility for what happens next, you take 100% of the power to resolve the problem for yourself.
Misery does love company, but it doesn’t have to be you.
Tarik Cohen is a running back for the Chicago Bears. He’s 5’-6” tall and weighs 179 pounds, soaking wet.
Trent Brown is a lineman for the (now) Las Vegas Raiders. He’s 6’-8” tall and weighs 359 pounds.
That makes Brown 21% taller and 100% heavier than Cohen.
Yet every Sunday for the past four months, Tarik has enthusiastically grabbed the ball from Mitchell Trubisky and headed, full speed into four guys that look just like Brown, not to mention the seven others who are lined up behind, ready to pound him into the earth. And the idiot’s smiling!!
What is he thinking!?
He’s thinking the same thing that you need to be thinking when you go face-to-face with one of those boogeymen that can bring you to your knees with anxiety.
What’s your go-to worry? Money? Your health? Retirement? Relationships? We’ve all got one issue or another that can stop us in our tracks and leave us wondering how or even if we’re ever going to get past this massive barrier. And when you find yourself going toe-to-toe against your own 300-pound wall of worry, too often it’s easier to give up and decide that you can’t…
But when you surrender to ‘can’t’ you sell yourself short. You put limits on your future. You agree to be less than you know you can and want to be.
There’s a lot of “face your fears and do it anyway” advice floating around out there. But I’m not sure I buy into it. You’ll never ‘out-muscle’ your anxieties – they’ve been around too long and own the winning record between the two of you.
No, you’ll never out-muscle your worries but, like Tarik, you can outsmart them.
If you watch him play, you realize that he never willfully runs head first into a 300-pound defensive lineman. He’s familiar with the laws of physics and knows what would happen in that kind of collision.
Instead, he cuts, dodges, ducks and dives around his big, lumbering foes, daring to be caught. He relies on quickness, dexterity and speed, rather than sheer volume. You can do the same when tackling your fears.
As opponents, fears are pretty dumb. They rely entirely on just one skill – the ability to get you to fantasize about a terrible future. You may have heard that acronym for FEAR – Fantasized Events Appearing Real. But they’re so good at this one skill, that you regularly allow that purely imaginary (and highly unlikely) future to loom in your mind as your reality.
To outsmart the anxiety, identify both the desire and the fear that are behind it using the following sentence:
“I want to _________, and I scare myself by imagining ____________. The key words are “I scare myself by imagining.”
For example, your boss has asked you to give a presentation at your next Division meeting. Let’s listen in on a new kind of self-talk that can cut, dodge, duck and dive around this worry.
“I’m worried about this upcoming presentation.”
“What do I want and how am I scaring myself? In other words, what am I imagining will happen if I do?”
“I want to give a great presentation and I scare myself by imagining that I’ll mess it up and make a fool of myself in front of my peers.
(Notice how you’re going into the future and scaring yourself with a fantasy of others laughing at you.)
“Have I ever made a presentation to this group before?”
“Yes, but only once, and it was very small and inconsequential.”
“Regardless, did I mess it up and did anyone laugh at me?
“No. In fact, several of them commented that I did a really good job and that they were impressed with how confident I seemed.”
“Am I knowledgeable about the topic? Is this an opportunity to demonstrate my abilities to the boss? Is this likely to look good on my resume?”
“Yes, yes and yes!”
“Have I ever done anything before that was embarrassing?
“Of course, everyone has!”
And did I survive without permanent scarring and perhaps even grow a little?
“So, when I think about it, this is a great opportunity to stretch my comfort zone and add to my skills and experience with no discernable downside?”
“I think I’ll start working on that presentation!”
It’s very difficult to win a head-to-head, just-do-it contest against your anxieties. But you can play a totally different game by looking for the weaknesses in your opponent. Where your 6’-8” opponent has lots of muscle and mass, you’ve got brains and agility. By recognizing the flaw in anxiety’s game plan (it only works if it can manipulate your imagination), you can easily deke around them and into the open field.
When Tarik Cohen crosses the scrimmage line he knows there are eleven enormous guys, all wanting his head. Anybody else would turn tail and run. But Tarik knows something they don’t. He genuinely believes he’s the best man on the field. And he genuinely believes that his speed and agility can beat their size and weight every time.
You have something you’re anxiety doesn’t. The ability to think your way through the fantasized events that appear real.
I like to picture my comfort zone as an island surrounded by dark, mysterious waters.
I’m happy when I’m on dry land and I get more and more anxious the further I venture from shore. Like those ancient maps that put the simple label, “there be dragons” in the uncharted regions, you choose to go there at your own peril.
What does the map of your island look like?
The advice we’re given about this little piece of emotional real estate we each occupy, though, is contradictory and conflicting.
On the one hand, we’re encouraged to “stretch” it or “step outside” of it on the way to personal and professional growth. Stepping outside my comfort zone sounds both dangerous and exciting. Kind of like a scientist in Antarctica, bundling up in a survival suit to venture out from her tiny, well-insulated hut in search of evidence for the origins of the solar system.
On the other hand, when life gets stressful, we’re told to “go to our happy place,” which you can think of as the exact center of your comfort island, as far from the edges as it’s possible to get.
Diversity or Exclusivity?
I know people who live on islands that are perfectly circular, completely surrounded by a sturdy, concrete seawall. They know everything they care to know about anything and they’ve set well-defined limits on what they accept into their lives. Anything outside that perimeter is unknown, unfriendly and unwelcome.
The people I find most interesting occupy comfort islands that have bays and coves and deep indentations where the sea reaches far inland in some areas of its coastline. They also have long peninsulas that jut way out into the water in others. Some days, when the tide is high, there are low lying areas where the sea has moved in and made their island smaller. Other times some volcanic eruption or moving tectonic plate has revealed a new piece of dry land that they can now explore.
Each jutting peninsula and indented cove represents an aspect of our lives. Is your career a long peninsula, stretching way out into the sea? Or is it a sheltered beach, protected from the slightest wave? What about your finances, your health, your spiritual growth or your relationships?
Changing Emotional Landscapes
Of course your island is continually changing shape. When you were six you were afraid of the dark and the bogeyman who lived under your bed. That bay was filled in long ago. Your island grows with every accomplishment and success you achieve.
A traumatic or painful event, though, can cause an entire peninsula to sink below the waves, leaving you anxious and afraid in areas where you were once completely at ease.
We all have some aspects of our lives in which we feel comfortable stretching, extending and exploring. We also have those other elements that we carefully shelter, timid and cautious about trying anything remotely unfamiliar.
While it’s tempting to simply accept the shape of our island as it is, the more intimately you know every inch of your comfort zone, the more you get to choose what shape you’d like it to be. When you discover and map the edges, you get to decide your priorities for expansion.
Expanding Your Comfort Zone
Since all growth happens at the perimeter of our comfort zones, it’s also useful to know what that growth feels like. If the waters off the coast of Cape Relationships are deep, stepping a toe over the line will immediately feel very scary. If, however, Financial Cove is fairly shallow, testing unfamiliar waters will be gradual, allowing you to get used to the growth at a comfortable pace.
Knowing your own coastline lets you decide when and how you launch expansion projects. As much as possible, tackle the challenging ones in times when you’re feeling strong and none of your other coves or bays are under siege from bad weather.
A steadily expanding comfort zone allows you to dream more, try more and achieve more. Begin by exploring and mapping the Coast of You and then purposely set out to expand it. But always know that you can take shelter in the middle of the island when a storm blows through.
A little while back I received this message from one of our blog readers:
“After getting a degree in a subject that is fairly general and one that is proving difficult to find employment and perhaps a degree that is not a good fit, how can one NOT be worried?”
My wife and I love a good road trip. At the drop of a hat we’ll drive 500 miles for no particular reason. We’ve driven east-west across North America four times, north-south at least that many, and braved the roads in Europe numerous times, too.
Our constant companion on any trip is our Garmin GPS. We call her ‘Carmen Sandiego’ after the world-traveling character in the old video game and TV show. One of Carmen’s great gifts is her patience whenever we take a wrong turn. We giggle whenever we hear her tell us that she is “recalculating…”
While it’s a pretty time-worn cliché, life is also a journey, and one on which we regularly take wrong turns. So what should you do when you think that that last left-hander isn’t taking you where you want to go?
First of all, anyone who has been able to earn a degree – regardless of the subject – has proven themselves to be smart. A smart person wants to do smart things and worrying isn’t smart. It drains your energy, makes you sick, and since it accomplishes absolutely nothing, it merely postpones finding and acting on any real solutions.
The trouble with worry is that it consumes your entire brain with nothing left for really effective analysis and problem solving. Since there’s no brain power left to give a useful second opinion, though, worry seems to be the only option. But here are some steps that you can take.
Give yourself a day in which you ‘reschedule’ worrying. Tell yourself that you’ll get back to fretting tomorrow, but, just for today, you’re going to try something different. Your mind will try to tell you that worrying is the most urgent thing you have to do. But since it’s produced no good ideas in the last 24 hours, the next 24 can be safely devoted to something else.
On a recent trip to Italy, we found ourselves halfway down the wrong way of a crowded, one-way street in Florence. We had no choice but to back up. So that’s a good place to start.
Back up to the decision to take that degree in the first place. What led to that decision? Did it seem like the easy way at the time? Was it in response to someone else suggesting that you should? Were you pursuing what, at the time, was a genuine passion? Or was there some other reason that you decided to devote three or four years to learning those subjects? Be really honest with yourself. You’ve no doubt known why you chose that course of action all along. But we’re all really good at kidding ourselves and drowning out the real story with the one that sounds best.
I’ve had three very distinct careers so far in my life. I spent five years getting an architecture degree because, at the time, I was really interested in old buildings. But after working in that profession for about 15 years, I discovered that I wasn’t really that good at it or passionate about it.
Despite the fact that people were impressed when I told them I was an architect and the money was pretty good, I couldn’t continue on a road that wasn’t mine. It was tempting to keep going down the path I was on and took considerable effort to change. But I couldn’t look in the mirror and pretend I was being true to myself.
As you acknowledge the real reasons you pursued the degree (or married that guy, or got into that career, or…) you have to be equally honest about whether or not those reasons are still valid for you. One of the realities of travel is that, whenever you get to a new location you have a different perspective on the countryside. Having made it to the top of a hill, you can now see things you couldn’t see before. This new perspective makes it perfectly acceptable, and frequently advisable, to change your plans.
Now that you have this new knowledge and new perspective, what makes sense for you to do next? The fact that you started down this road is not always a good reason to continue. Recalculating…
Where do you want to go now? What do you want from your life now? Having lived and experienced the past five years, what is your passion now?
I’ve heard people object to the idea of going back to school, saying, “Do you know how old I would be when I finally finished that degree?” The answer is, “Exactly the same age as you’d be if you don’t go back to school, but a lot more fulfilled.”
My father, who was forced to leave school at age 16 when his father died, was a telephone repairman for 20 years. He hated every minute of it. At the age of 50 he decided he couldn’t continue. With a wife and five children, he finished his high school diploma through correspondence courses, quit his job and went to college to get his teaching degree. He then spent the last 15 years of his career with a giant smile on his face as he shared his passion for mechanics with vocational high school students. The transition was challenging for sure, but finding and being able to pursue his life’s purpose made it all worthwhile.
There are only two mistakes you can make when it comes to choosing an education (or relationship, or lifestyle, or career, or …) path. The first is to choose because you think it’s what someone else (or society, or earning opportunities, or…) wants you to do. The second is to continue down a road that you’ve discovered is the wrong one for you. To ignore the ‘recalculating…’ prompt.
So, having taken a day off from worrying, and discovered what it is that you really want now, the next steps are obvious. Not always easy, but obvious. You can tell they’re the right steps by that fluttering in your heart as you contemplate going back to school to get the degree that you REALLY want. To go find the woman you’re SUPPOSED to be with. To live the life that’s TRULY yours.
You can also tell they’re the right steps because the worrying has stopped.
P.S. I’m reminded of two road trips, one in Ireland and one in Italy, both involving wrong turns. The Irish turn led us along a rutted cow path, between two ancient stone walls and through a farmer’s field. The Italian turn landed us tangled in fresh laundry in someone’s back yard. In all our travels, these remain a couple of our most memorable moments