Is it time to stop feeling sorry for yourself? When life is tough, self pity is totally normal. But it keeps you stuck. Here’s how to stop feeling sorry for yourself and move from self-pity to a new mindset called “self-efficacy” in 15 minutes (or less!) It’s all about refocusing your perspective!
Being in charge has benefits. When you’re in charge, you can set the priorities. You can boss people around. You can do what you want.
We love being in control. Our brains are actually wired to equate an increase in control with a better outcome. We think that when we’re in charge, we’re more likely to get what we want. And if we’re not able to call the shots, we probably WON’T get the outcome we’re hoping for.
So when you’re not in control, then what? Should you just give up? Let it go and hope for the best?
That all sounds very zen and mature, but most of us aren’t really able to do that. We like that feeling of control too much. So what can we do to get what we want when we aren’t in control?
You Can’t Stop It from Raining
First, make sure you’re focusing on a problem that’s actually fixable. As Bill Burnett says in the book Designing Your Life, “If it’s not actionable, it’s not a problem. It’s a situation, a circumstance, a fact of life.”
When I was 26 years old, I was diagnosed with cancer. For the first several days, I walked around in a fog. What should I do? Was I going to survive? Would I need surgery? Would I need chemo? How much was all of this going to cost? How was I going to tell my loved ones? Who would break the news to my baby sister, who adored me? On the third day, the fog lifted. I knew exactly what to do. I needed to find the best surgeon in the state.
I realized that my problem wasn’t that I had cancer. I mean, having cancer is problematic, for sure! But I didn’t have the ability to cure my cancer, so I couldn’t make that the problem I focused on. Instead, I made my problem “How do I survive cancer?” With that problem in my mind, I started my research. I found the best surgeon in the state, we agreed on a plan of action, and treated my cancer.
Do you see the difference between “I have cancer,” and “How do I survive cancer?” It may seem like a small difference, but by focusing on something actionable, I gave myself back control in a situation where I could have just felt sorry for myself without any power.
If You Can’t Call The Shots, Send a Text
When you focus on something actionable, you’re doing something else – you’re taking a small step toward a goal. Have you ever heard the riddle “how do you eat an elephant?” One bite at a time! The only way to get overwhelming tasks done is to start small. When you aren’t in control, they only way you can start is by starting small, because you don’t have the power to do anything big.
That may sound frustrating, to only be able to take baby steps. But there’s a reason why it’s actually a really good idea. Doing something, doing anything, helps build up our sense of personal power. It’s a process called “self efficacy,” where we slowly build up a belief that we have the ability to play an active role in our destiny. By choosing a surgeon, I took control over something having to do with my cancer. I can’t control cancer, but I can control that tiny piece of it.
Come and Get It
If you’re in a situation where you’re not in control, start by noticing the real, actionable problem you’re facing. What can you actually do something about? Not just what’s frustrating or annoying or scary. But what’s fixable?
After you’ve identified the problem you can actually influence, break it apart into small chunks. What’s the first small thing you can control? Accomplish that, and then the next small thing, until the path in front of you is clear.
It may be uncomfortable, but you should be in situations where you don’t have all the control. If you’re only ever playing in sandboxes where you’re the boss, then you’re playing too small. Get out of the tiny sandbox, head to the beach, and use these techniques to help you get what you’re going for, no matter what stands in your way.
“I want a divorce.”
Some words cause your body to go numb. Your ears buzz. You start to float above yourself. In those moments, you’re experiencing so much stress, and your body is being flooded with so much adrenaline, it can be difficult to think straight.
As difficult as it may be, thinking straight is the #1 thing you can do to help yourself when you’re getting terrible news. It’s crucial, in those moments, to keep your wits about you, gather information, and maintain self-control.
So how do you stay calm when you’re in the middle of receiving terrible news?
Take a sip of water.
It’s a tiny action, but taking a sip of water can be a great move when you receive shocking information. First, it gives you a mental break from the tough conversation. You may feel like you need a split second to close your eyes and process the information, and taking a sip of water gives you an excuse for breaking eye contact without looking “weak.” Taking a sip of water also gives you something to do with your hands, to keep them from jittering. Especially if the conversation is with someone like a boss, you want to appear composed and stoic. Having a glass of water as a prop can cover up your nerves.
Stay present in the moment.
It’s human nature, when getting bad news, for your thoughts to start spinning out of control. You can’t help but think about the future, and how this news will shape your life for months or years to come. Instead, keep your thoughts in the moment at hand. When you keep you mind focused, you’ll be better able to process what’s actually happening than if you allow your mind to wander to all the worst case scenarios. As this Forbes article remarks, it’s definitely best to avoid heading down the spiral of “what if…?” When you stay in the moment, you’ll be a better participant in the conversation, and you’ll remember the important information more accurately. Which dovetails perfectly with the next step…
When I found out I had cancer, there were so many questions I wished I had asked the doctor when I was right there in front of him. Because I was so flustered at the news, I sat there in shock instead of asking smart questions. I had to email my concerns to the nurse and wait several days for a response. If you get bad news, don’t hesitate to ask as many questions as you need, rather than assuming the worst. It also helps to take notes. Many times our adrenaline keeps us from recording good memories of these tough conversations, so taking notes will help you not only focus in the moment, but also give you something to jog your memory later.
Remind yourself all the ways it could be worse.
We’ve been taught to believe we should think positive when we get bad news. But last week I had the honor of hearing Sheryl Sandberg, the author and Facebook executive, participate in a Q&A, and she had a different perspective. She recalled that a friend told her, after her husband Dave died, that “it could have been worse. Dave could have been driving the children when his heart gave out.” She realized that she could have lost her entire family in a single moment. By remembering that things could, in fact, be worse, we put our struggles in perspective.
Take a single action.
Getting bad news makes us feel powerless. We can’t control the situation, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do anything. Figure out the first action you can take to regain control, no matter how small. Through a psychological construct called “self efficacy,” taking even the smallest action helps you feel more competent and powerful. If you’ve been diagnosed with an illness, your fist step could be finding a specialist. If you’re faced with divorced, your first step could be protecting your financial information. If you’ve been let go from your job, it could be brushing up your resume. By doing what you can do, even if it doesn’t feel like much, you’re building your self efficacy for the moments ahead.
Getting bad news can feel like life as you know it is over. But if you keep calm, stay present, gather information, and put the situation in perspective, you’ll be able to move forward as quickly as possible.
Does seeing photos of Hurricane Harvey’s devastation have you feeling helpless?
There’s a reason why so many people are pitching in and volunteering to help. And it isn’t JUST because they want to be good samaritans. Giving back to other people is a great way to help all of us process trauma and feel less powerless. Even the smallest gesture helps us feel a little more in control during these traumatic times. Find something to do, and give back!
If you want to know what to do when you’re stressed out, DON’T just cross things off your to-do list faster. Learn about your “locus of control” and how your brain’s focus plays a role in keeping you from being stressed and overwhelmed.
Asking for help can be uncomfortable and humbling, but sometimes it’s necessary. Since I’m visiting MD Anderson Cancer Center this week for my one-year follow-up scans, it got me thinking about the best techniques to ask for (and get) the help we need when times are tough. Here’s EXACTLY what to say when you need to ask for help.