When things don’t go the way we hoped they would, we often feel disappointment. The problem can seem to be a little bump in the road, it may appear to be nearly impossible to resolve or it can be anywhere in between.
I worked really hard in school but didn’t get the scholarship I wanted. The store was all out of my favorite flavor of ice cream. I unexpectedly had to find a new place to live. I couldn’t find the toy I really wanted to play with. Insurance didn’t cover all of the medical bills. A close friend was killed in car accident. I lost my job. My phone didn’t charge even though I thought I had plugged it in.
Our automatic reaction to these problems trains our mind to continually act on the negative emotion that we feel. And usually makes our problems seem bigger and bigger each time. It doesn’t have to be this way! Once we understand how our mind reacts we can use many ways to stop our automatic reaction. We’ll talk about five.
When we’ve learned those skills we can then learn ways to train our mind to respond to disappointment in new ways that will change our perspective and make our challenges seems conquerable.
How Our Mind Reacts
Our mind expects certain things to happen. Sometimes we don’t even recognize that this process is going on. But each time our expectations aren’t met we feel disappointment, anger, frustration or all sorts of other negative emotions. Those feelings are a result of what science calls cognitive dissonance. Basically our mind thought something would happen and it didn’t, so it’s in a state of conflict that needs to be resolved. The way our mind handles that conflict depends on how we have consciously trained it or not.
In attempts to resolve that conflict our brain typically reevaluates what we thought would happen. Often we automatically begin to think, “I shouldn’t have expected that outcome. I was wrong.” or, “What ever happened doesn’t matter because it’s not important.” It might be that I love art and when told that I can’t take an art class any more, I say, “It’s alright, I really don’t like art that much.”* Or it could be that I have worked very hard to prepare for my dream job, but when I don’t get hired, I say, “I really don’t deserve that position anyway.”
By reacting this way repeatedly we are continually reinforcing in our mind, without thinking about it, that we respond to disappointment in these negative ways.
How to Stop Our Automatic Reaction
We can consciously learn new skills to stop the automatic response of our mind and help us make it through the inevitable difficulties in our life. The capability to learn these skills is naturally a part of us. Even if there are some limitations in our ability to learn, we can generally learn enough to be very helpful to us in facing our problems.
These 5 skills increase our ability to face the challenge. A later post will address some skills to use as we work on the problem.
1. Make meaning of crisis and challenge. Everything that happens to us is this life is an experience. The facts of the event as we interpret them are stored in our minds. But the mind automatically creates a story about the experience which includes other elements, such as thoughts and emotions, that the mind associates with the experience but which often do not accurately represent the facts. To effectively make it through a challenge, it is very helpful to consciously look for different explanations of the experience that may help us find a new meaning in what happened and make it easier for us to work through the challenge.
One day at work, for example, my boss may yell at me and I may think, “he is really mad at me. It sounds like I may lose my job.” But in fact, there could be many other reasons for the experience. He may have been having a heated discussion with someone else and he spoke to me before he calmed down. He may have been having a bad day and the emotions came out when he spoke to me. I may have been in a bad mood and when he tried to correct me on something I had done, I felt like he was yelling.
2. Nurture spirituality. Many people recognize a Higher Power outside of themselves. For them the first step to nurture spirituality is to connect to that Higher Power through some form of prayer. For all of us, accessing our inner voice will help guide us through difficult times. Keeping a journal in which we make two or three entries each day about things we are grateful for that day and another two or three entries about things we accomplished that day will help us connect with that inner voice.
3. Keep a positive outlook. Negative thoughts and feelings will come to us while we are working through a problem. It is hard to be positive when you feel down, so it is important to take care of negative thoughts and feelings correctly. There are many good ways to handle the negativity in our life. Stop ⇒ Consider ⇒ Choose is one of those ways.
Stop – When you recognize something negative in your mind, you mentally stop and acknowledge the thought or feeling and accept that it is there. Then center yourself by focusing on several deep breaths. This helps us separate the emotions so we can more clearly focus on the situation.
Consider – When your mind is focused on what is happening at the moment, you can consider where those feelings will take you and look for different ways that may be better.
Choose – With that information you can consciously choose which path to follow. You do not have to follow the original thoughts or feelings. You can follow a different path instead.
By following this process, you can replace the negative thoughts and feelings with positive results. Then your mind begins to expect positive results.
4. Be flexible. There is usually more than one way to accomplish a goal or to get where you want to be. But, since our mind does not want to be wrong, it usually accepts what we have done in the past as the only possible way something can be done. However, since we are endowed with self-awareness, creativity and choice, we can begin to create new paths that we can follow. Once we begin to recognize new paths, we will also find that there are many things we can learn as we go through the experience.
5. Stay connected. For everyone there is an amazing amount of potential inside of us to help us through each of life’s experiences. Our internal resources are accessed most easily when we do things that build up positive feelings in us. Taking time to do things we enjoy, like nature, uplifting music, art and literature, is a great way to build the positive energy in us and connect to our internal resources. Repeating power statements regularly and making sure that everything we say to ourselves or about ourselves is positive are also very effective ways to connect to the power within us.
Making these skills a part of our life will help us to strengthen ourselves especially in times of difficulty. They are ways to stop ourselves from going down the negative path (or bring ourselves back up if we have already gone there). The added power they bring to us will make a positive outcome from our life’s challenges possible and much more likely.
*Disney Channel’s Girl Meets World (Season 2 Episode 14 “Girl Meets Creativity”) is a great example of this thinking and may be a good aid in discussing this topic with someone else. The show is geared toward tweens, but others might enjoy it as well.
Note: These skills from Family therapist Froma Walsh were listed on a UW Extension brochure. She labeled skills 1-3 as Family Belief System, skills 4-6 as Family Organization and Resources, and skills 7-9 as Family Communication. The skills not listed in this post will be discussed in a future post.
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