Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Next Why

You ever find yourself in situations where you feel a sudden drop in self-confidence? You spill tomato juice on your linen suit just before walking into an important meeting or you open your guitar case just before taking the stage and find a broken B-string with no spares.

Perhaps there are certain things that, no matter how calm you are, always seem to annoy you? Someone rides your tail as you drive to work or someone rides the left lane trailing a parade of cars. Someone who knows nothing about your situation dictates what you should do.

Do you ever ask yourself why? Why the sudden loss in confidence? Why the sudden gain in a annoyance? If so, how do you answer?

You might answer why with non-answers like, "Well, who wouldn't feel a drop in confidence after spilling eight ounces of bright red liquid on his crotch just before going into an important meeting?", or, "Wouldn't you get annoyed if someone cut you off like that?"

You might respond with befuddlement. "I don't know why. It's just something I do. I can't seem to help it."

We all experience situations, events and people that seem to trigger responses that are disproportionate to the trigger or when compared to how we respond to other things. Because the emotional changes happen so quickly and because they can be measured physiologically (e.g., increased heart rate and blood pressure) we often see them as autonomic. So to ask "why" seems silly. It's a physiological phenomenon beyond our control, right?

Yet, no matter how quick your response, no matter how large the magnitude of biometric change, the response is not automatic. Sure, once you've determined that you need to respond, your autonomic systems can make it happen quickly. However, they don't fire up on their own. You have to train them to do it. Fight or flight doesn't kick in until you perceive something to fight or from which to flee. The something is determined by you, and it's done over time.

So, if you really want to change how you respond, you can. The best way I've found to overcome seemingly automatic responses to situations and people is to perform a little internal archeology and dig down to why I respond the way I do. This is quite different from finding out why it's okay to respond the way I do or determining which biological systems facilitate the response.

It's important to note that there are typically many layers of why crusted around the core. Getting to the core why is an iterative process that can take time and diligence  The more deeply rooted or out-of-proportion the response, the more whys you'll need to ask.

The first answer might be a non-answer like, "Well, who wouldn't get mad!"

That's OK, you can still ask the next why, e.g., "Even if everyone else would get mad, why do you get mad?" or "Let's say everyone does get mad. Each person would do so for her own reasons. What's yours?"

There's no need to contend with the statement that everyone would get mad. You just leap from it to the next why.

Eventually your whys will lead you to an answer that is a belief, a belief about what the trigger meant: "I believed that no one would take me seriously because I had a big red stain on my pants." or, "I believed that I would play terribly because my B-string was broken." or, "I believed that the driver of that car cut me off on purpose."

When you do, you're starting to make real progress, but you're not done. There are still more whys to be asked and the whys begin to diversify. You could ask, "Why do you believe no one would take you seriously?" or, "Why do believe you would have a stain on your pants in the meeting?"

You could ask, "Why do you believe you'd play terribly" or, "Why do you believe that you'd be playing without a B-string?" or, tying it back to the initial response, "Let's say you were to play terribly without a B-string. Why would that cause you to lose confidence?"

The cool part about pursuing the next why is that, even if you don't get to the core why, the revelations along the way will serve you. You might not get to why you'd feel horrible about playing terribly, but still get to why you wouldn't have to walk on stage without a B-string simply because you had no spares.

So do you have any poorly controlled or uncontrollable reactions to situations, events or people that you'd like to change? How about pursuing the next why?

Happy Thursday,

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