Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Don't trust how you tell your story when you’re too defensive
Stress for Success
February 26, 2008

Are there are certain people or situations that trigger instantaneous and negatively emotional reactions in you? If so, consider this quote:
§ "The degree to which I am wrong is directly proportionate to how adamantly I profess to be right." -- Source unknown.

In other words, "I think thou dost protest too much, " (revised from Shakespeare's Hamlet.)

One red flag indicating not to trust your perception of something stressful is your own defensive, emotional and/or rigid reaction, which signifies that the true source of your stress is mostly in how you’re telling your story of the situation. This is difficult to recognize in yourself because you assume that your interpretations are accurate.

Everyone projects onto all situations what's in their own heads so you find what you look for.

For example, you have a core belief that life is unfair therefore more easily interpret other people’s actions as unfair, even when they’re not. Like you explain that you didn't get a promotion because your boss is unfair. From the boss’ point of view you weren't qualified. If true, as long as you assume he's unfair you'll be at a disadvantage for getting future promotions because you won't be improving your competence.

There are rigid words that fuel defensive interpretations that need to be replaced:
§ “Should, shouldn’t, have to, must” with “prefer”
§ “Every, all, everyone, no one” with “some”
§ “Always, never” substitute “sometimes”
§ “Can’t” substitute “choose not to”

For example, “She shouldn’t talk to us that way,” becomes, “I prefer she not talk to us that way.” Isn't the second version less rigid?

Or, "No one appreciates anything I do," becomes, "My son doesn't appreciate that I iron his clothes." The second version is more specific and accurate allowing you to address the real issue rather than the global "no one" and "anything I do."

One more red flag that indicates that your perception is more of your stress than the situation itself is when you emotionally judge someone who's "stressing you." For example, "she's lazy." Just because you think she's lazy doesn't mean she is. Don't confuse judgments with facts. Your negative judgments of another are usually projections of what you cannot accept in yourself. Rather than delve into your psyche for the reasons it's easier to play devil's advocate with your negative judgments.

To challenge them identify the facts of the situation and the other person’s behavior to assess if your judgments are legitimate. In this example let's say she turns in her work late and takes longer lunch breaks than allowed, which can be factual and behavioral. But do they justify labeling her lazy? Whether or not they do, you'll more successfully deal with her if you focus on the facts and behaviors and let go of your judgments.

How you tell not only the story of your life but the story of your individual daily experiences creates your reality. If your reality is entirely too stressful then change how you tell your story.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com with your questions or for information about her workshops (like Slow Down You Move Too Fast at FGCU on March19) on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Tell a more optimistic story to reduce your stress
Stress for Success
February 19, 2008

Are you seen as an optimist, a pessimist, a victim or in charge of your own life?

How others see you is partly derived from their perception of how you "tell your story". In recent articles I've addressed how you tell your story becomes your self-fulfilling prophecy. If your life needs an overhaul then how you tell your story does, too.

Consider two ideas in deciding whether or not your life story needs a rewrite.

When something bad happens to you how you explain why it happened implies if your story is perpetuating your stress.

Dr. Martin Seligman, world-renowned optimism/pessimism researcher, University of PA, identified three speech components of your "explanatory style": how you explain why something bad (or good) happens to you.

Pretend you applied for a job that you didn’t get, then answer, “Why didn’t I get the job?”
1. Ongoing vs. temporary: Does your explanation suggest the event has ongoing consequences vs. a temporary setback?
· “I’ll never get a job!” (On-going/pessimistic)
· “I wasn’t on for the interview.” (Temporary setback/optimistic)
2. Global vs. specific: Does not getting the job have global effects on your life or only on a specific part?
· “I’m a loser.” (Global/pessimistic)
· “Money will be tight until I get a job.” (Specific/optimistic)
3. Blame yourself vs. an outside source: Do you generally blame yourself when something bad happens or is something/someone else responsible?
· “I’m a loser.” (Self-blame/pessimistic)
· “What a terrible interviewer!” (Blames outside source/optimistic)

(Seligman isn’t encouraging you to shirk personal responsibility but finds excessive self-blaming is a sign of pessimism.)

To improve how you tell your story when something bad happens change your explanations from on-going to temporary, from having global implications to specific ones, and from self-blame to lightening up on yourself. More optimism also leads to greater professional success, resiliency, better health and possibly greater longevity.

Repetitive, dysfunctional life patterns are another sure sign that how you tell your story is perpetuating a stressful reality. For example, a customer said that she was about to quit her fourth job in three years for the same reason: "the jerks I work with." Is it possible that her story maintains her stress?

Eric Berne’s Transactional Analysis (remember I’m OK – You’re OK?) explains this. He found that "dysfunctional behavior results from self-limiting choices made in childhood in an attempt to survive and thrive." These create your "life-script, the preconscious life plan that governs how you live your life." Burns also defined socially dysfunctional behavioral patterns as "games."

You attract people who’ll help you live out your life-script. Perhaps my customer had antagonistic relationships with her family of origin and repeatedly "plays games" that result in hostile relationships in her workplaces.

Without realizing it we all continue to live out our dysfunctional (and functional) life-scripts. The trick is to spot the repetitive, dysfunctional tendencies and assume that we may be keeping alive these unhealthy patterns through how we tell our story. Good counseling can certainly help to unravel your complicity and create a different story line to move you toward a healthier outcome ending.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com with your questions or for information about her workshops (like Slow Down You Move Too Fast at FGCU on March19) on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Core beliefs can cause stress
Stress for Success
February 12, 2008

Everyone has core beliefs that drive their reactions to all of life’s situations. These are mostly established in early childhood and are very difficult to shake. But if you want to get off the treadmill of automatically reacting out of childhood programming and expand your options for reacting differently you must identify, challenge and adjust your limiting core beliefs.

At the heart of all perceptions are these beliefs. For example, a core belief that people are good and to be trusted allows you to put faith in others. However, if you believe people are untrustworthy you’ll view others suspiciously. These entirely different perceptions, based on core beliefs, will lead to drastically different relationships.

To identify core beliefs driving your stressful reactions, allowing you to challenge and ultimately modify them to respond more productively, use the Repetitive Why Technique.

For instance, much of Irene's stress comes from being a pleaser. She overextends herself to help others to the detriment of taking care of herself, she says what others want to hear, and she says "yes" when she wants to say "no."

One day her boss needed something done by 2 p.m. Irene knew she wouldn't be able to get it done given her other responsibilities, but instead of saying so she said, "okay." To be more honest she needs to identify and change her underlying core belief, which paves the way for her to set appropriate limits.

With the Repetitive Why Technique ask, "why" repeatedly regarding your reactions. She would ask herself why she didn’t tell her boss the truth. For each answer she’d ask why again. It might go something like this:
§ "Why did I say I'd get the work done when I know I can't?"
o "Because she's my boss, I have to do what she tells me."
§ "Why do I think I have to say "yes" to anything my boss asks me?"
o "Because you don't say ‘no’ to authority figures."
§ "Why can't I say ‘no’ to authority figures?"
o "Because I might get into trouble."
§ "Why would I get into trouble?"

Perhaps the answer is that she regularly got into trouble when she defied her parents so she carries into adulthood an assumption - a core belief – that she shouldn’t challenge authority. To change her passiveness she needs to challenge this core belief. She could question if any colleagues have ever gotten into trouble when they’ve said they couldn't get something done. If she can’t find evidence of this she needs to honestly explain to her boss why she cannot finish everything. She could ask the boss to prioritize her work for her. If there’s evidence that the boss punishes those who set limits she’d need to decide whether or not she could live with that.

Being chained to past programming can be extremely limiting and stressful. Core beliefs that confine you can be reprogrammed. No doubt it takes time and effort, but it can be some of the most freeing work you'll ever do.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com with your questions or for information about her workshops (like Slow Down You Move Too Fast at FGCU on March19) on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Be careful how you tell your story
Stress for Success
February 5, 2008

Consider a woman who died from pancreatic cancer at age 55. Before she died she often joked that the three loves of her life - over eating, smoking and drinking - were killing her.

Cindy's life was never easy. She was adopted by people who shouldn't have been allowed to adopt. The mother generously meted out cruel and unusual punishment, smothering Cindy's self-confidence, like not allowing her as an adolescent to wash her hair for weeks on end. The father did his wife's bidding by beating Cindy with the belt at a time when society denied child abuse.

Her life started out so promising. Cindy was a beautiful child and her mother proudly entered her into child modeling shows. But as Cindy progressed through grade school she gained significant weight, reaching more than 200 pounds by sixth grade. No more modeling for her.

When Cindy explained why things "never" worked out for her she'd tell her story in a way that depicted her as helpless with no options to change anything. For instance, in her 40s she desperately wanted to buy a house but never attempted to get a loan, explaining, "Nobody's going to loan me money." Or not asking for a raise because, "I’m probably not worth it."

Be careful how you tell the story of your life. If it's a dead-end story you're probably living a dead-end life.

As I've written many times, to lower your stress you must invest your energy where you have control. Cindy had no control over what her parents did to her. Therapy could have helped her deal with that partly by teaching her how to tell her story in a way that put her in the driver's seat of her own life. It may have created a different outcome for her.

Instead she expressed her core beliefs through how she told her story: "I’m unworthy," "Life's stacked against me," and "I am unlovable." This final one explains why Cindy never dated in high school and why as an adult her only "male companions" were married and unavailable. She never married.

Cindy self medicated throughout her adult life through her three loves, topping out at 270 pounds.

After both of her adoptive parents died she met her biological family. In a picture of her and her birth mother you couldn't tell them apart; both pushing 300 pounds and facially looking like twins. Getting to know her birth family, all of whom were obese, finally gave Cindy and identity. It was like her adoptive mother's criticisms were finally put to rest, giving Cindy great peace.

How do you tell your story, especially the tough parts? Are you acted upon by and do you blame outside forces that leave you powerless to change anything? Or are you in the driver's seat of the outcome of your stories?

Trust me, how you tell your story becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you are dissatisfied with your life, start turning it around by revising how you tell your story. Change it in ways that put you in charge of creating the outcomes you want.

Jacquelyn Ferguson, M. S., of InterAction Associates, is a trainer and a Stress Coach. E-mail her at www.jackieferguson.com with your questions or for information about her workshops (like Slow Down You Move Too Fast at FGCU on March19) on this and other topics and to invite her to speak to your organization.