A Simple Technique for Dealing with Overwhelming Negative Thoughts and Feelings

Sometimes feelings and thoughts can overwhelm us. We might feel totally consumed by an emotion. The way we describe and give an account of these thoughts and emotions are important. However language is imprecise and doesn’t always do justice to the way we think or feel. In this post I offer a simple technique (that I use in my coaching practice) that may help when we feel encompassed by our thoughts and feelings. It’s based on appealing to the different parts of you. It won’t effect a miracle but it may help to usher in a little hope.

Broaden and Build

Book: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodIn times of stress we think in terms of absolutes. In the classic ‘fight or flight’ survival mode we draw on a limited range of options. If it feels like an emergency we don’t have time to consider all options. By contrast when we are more relaxed we are able to access a broader range of cognitions. This is the essence of Barbara Frederickson’s Broaden and Build theory of positive emotions. In everyday life we speak about ‘taking a deep breath’ before tackling a challenging task. This is the basis of meditations and mindfulness techniques that abound and something I discuss in greater depth in my book Unlock Your Confidence. However, I am concerned with linguistic techniques here.

Partitioning the emotion

One technique I use with my coaching clients, I borrowed from the theory and practice of focusing, initially created by Eugene Gendlin (and developed by Ann Weiser Cornellsee link below for her book). It’s a form of body-mind therapy that has the individual look inwards to listen to the messages the body gives us. Through the process, people describe the feeling and basically free associate. Part of the process involves naming the part of the body from which the feeling appears to emanate and use the phrase  ‘part of me’. So instead of ‘I’m angry’, you would say ‘part of me is angry’. This seems an accurate representation of what we often do when experiencing mixed emotions, especially in relation to relationships with loved ones. Yes we love them but part of us is sometimes infuriated by them.

Once you have partitioned the feeling, it immediately invites you to consider the part or parts of you that are not feeling a particular way.  In coaching sessions it helps the client consider their issues from a broader range of internal perspectives. Invariably the dialogue follows the pattern ‘You know, yes part of my is angry and rightly so and secretly part of me is relieved or delighted’ and so on. Using ‘part of me’ acknowledges that we are multi-faceted beings and that cannot be reduced to black and white, either-or states. It doesn’t deny the feeling. It acknowledges it  in a way that allows other aspects of your experience to have a voice too. It helps to provide a useful platform from which you can move forward. Together with other solution-focused principles it can help break the stronghold of overwhelm. As with any technique, it becomes more effective if you make it a habit, not use it when you need it. It’s a way in which our language shape our thoughts and build our confidence (and esteem) by revealing all aspects of ourselves.

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  • If you want to find out more about focusing, check out Ann Weiser Cornell’s excellent book: The Power of Focusing (see on Amazon UK or Amazon.com

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About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Gary is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He also offers coaching through Skype. Contact Gary to see how his solution focused (life) coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.

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Calmer – Confidence – Compassion Meditation (with Script) for Dealing With Difficult People

In psychology we know that the states of anxiety and relaxation cannot co-exist. This has become the mainstay of behavioural therapy for dealing with phobias and other anxiety disorders. We can also adapt this approach when dealing with ‘difficult people’. Some may argue that there’s no such thing as a ‘difficult person’ only ‘difficult behaviour’, However, when we are on the receiving end of someone whose habitual patterns of behaviour cause us distress, the distinction really doesn’t matter.

In the, Dhammapada, a collection of Buddhist sayings, there’s one that says ‘ Hatred cannot coexist with loving-kindness, and dissipates if supplanted with thoughts based on loving-kindness’. This saying was the inspiration for a the Loving-Kindness meditation that is used in the Broaden-and-Build in positive psychology. The idea is that we gain more by actively cultivating positive emotions rather than forever trying to ‘mop up’ negative feelings.

I’ve adapted the loving-kindness meditation for my confidence building approach which is based on our ability to feel comfortable in our skin, that is, to be able to relax. True inner confidence comes from stillness, whereas the busy ‘in your face’ over-confidence is often masking anxiety. Another key theme is in my approach is the concept of confidence-karma. This is the idea that we build confidence in ourselves as we build it in others. So this is how I devised the calmer-confidence-compassion meditation for my confidence building workshops. The idea that it helps to lay the foundations for positive interactions, even with the people we find objectionable.

The Calmer-Confidence-Compassion Basic Script

  • Begin with long, slow deep breaths to relax. As you breathe out, repeat the word ‘calmer’
  • Start directing feelings of calmness, confidence and compassion to yourself
  • Smile and mentally repeat the mantra ‘calmness, confidence and compassion’ for a few breaths
  • Reflect on your positive qualities, and make a positive statement about yourself
  • Continue to direct feelings of calmness, confidence and compassion to yourself
  • Now direct your attention to someone (not a family member or friend), who you admire and respect; it could be respected public figure or a spiritual leader
  • Direct feelings of calmness, confidence and compassion to them and see them smiling at you (and sending back feelings of calmness, confidence and compassion). Take a moment to experience the positive feelings.
  • Now imagine a close friend, a family member or a loved one and direct feelings of calmness, confidence and compassion to them.
  • See them smiling and redirecting the feelings back to you, taking a moment to experience the feelings
  • Now imagine a neutral person to whom you have no special feelings, such as a shop keeper or the person who delivers the post.
  • Direct feelings of calmness, confidence and compassion to them and see them smiling to you (and sending feelings of calmness, confidence and compassion back). Take a moment to experience the positive feelings.
  • Now consider a ‘difficult person in your life’, someone you are currently having issues with.
  • Direct feelings of calmness, confidence and compassion to them and see them smiling to you (and sending feelings of calmness, confidence and compassion back). Take a moment to experience these feelings.
  • Now bring your attention back to you and direct the feelings of calmness, confidence and compassion to yourself. Smile and repeat the mantra (‘calmness, confidence and compassion’).
  • After taking a few long, slow, deep breaths, open your eyes and return your awareness to your surroundings

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodThis is  an edited version and represents the first stage in a three stage process (The full version can be found in Unlock Your Confidence).

The order is always the same:

  • begin with yourself
  • then focus on a famous figure whom you revere and you don’t know
  • then a family member, friend or loved one
  • then a neutral person – a casual acquaintance you know by sight
  • the difficult person
  • back to yourself

Practised regularly it will open up opportunities to take small, significant actions to boost and build confidence in others. It will also help to begin to change your perceptions of difficult people in your life. You may not see a dramatic transformation but you may well see a few glimmers of light.

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About the author

Picture: Dr Gary Wood author of Unlock Your ConfidenceDr Gary Wood is a social psychologist and life coach. He is based in Birmingham and Edinburgh where he runs his own training and coaching practice and research consultancy. He is author of Unlock Your Confidence which is based on his confidence-building workshops. Contact Gary to see how his solution focused coaching approach would benefit you or your organization.

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Why Other People Matter and How Building Social Networks Supports Personal Growth, Confidence and Self-Esteem

The hierarchy of needs proposed by Abraham Maslow has transformed our understanding of motivation. It is so ubiquitous in training courses that I, jokingly apologize for including it in my confidence and esteem building workshops. When my book Unlock Your Confidence was going through the editing process, the editor even questioned whether I needed to include a diagram at all!

Maslow Hierarchy of NeedsHowever I felt I was adding something to the use of Maslow’s hierarchy. It’s a simple observation but a crucial one that the various needs are organized on a scale from ‘survival to growth’. This allowed me to link Maslow’s work with other psychological theories that inform confidence building. It also helps to answer the criticism that self actualization (the need for each of us to reach our own true potential) is an inherently self-centred concept. In this post I show how the hierarchy of needs fits in with the concept of psychological hardiness and the broaden and build approach to personal development. All of this psychological concepts inform my confidence-karma approach to personal development. First, let’s look at the needs pyramid.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, Self-Esteem and Belongingness

The hierarchy is expressed as a pyramid with basic needs at the bottom and higher need of self-actualization at the top. The emphasis of the basic needs is survival such as food drink, rest, sex and so on. At the next level we have safety and security needs. Further up we have love and belonginess needs, then esteem needs, then cognitive needs (finding meaning), then aestetic needs (appreciation of beauty) and finally at the top we have the need to reach our potential. Maslow’s theory emphasizes that the lower needs must be satisfied before we can attend fully to the next level up.

Esteem needs are half-way up the hierarchy and if we are not meeting our needs at the lower levels, self-esteem is harder to achieve. At this level is also self-efficacy, the sense that we are effective agents in the world. This is closely allied to self-confidence. What we learn from the needs pyramid is the importance of the idea of taking care of physical needs (that is, self-care) as stepping-stones (or building blocks) to confidence and esteem. It’s difficult to feel good about ourselves if we do not feel healthy. It’s difficult to be effective, active agents in the world if we are hungry, thirsty and tired.

What is also notable about the need’s hierarchy is that love and belonginess precede esteem needs. So connecting with other people is also a building block for esteem and confidence. It is important to recognise that many emotions and character traits are only meaningful in the context of other people. When you are on a desert island it’s difficult to feel shy or outgoing when it’s just you, the sea, the sand and the coconuts! Other people give meaning to what we think of as our personalities. The importance of connecting with people is also a key part of coping with changes in your life as we consider next.

Psychological Hardiness and Social Interaction

The need to belong fits with the concept of psychological hardiness, similar to resilience – the ability to bounce back, psychologically from life’s challenges and change. Hardiness acts as a buffer for heath and well-being and involves adopting the three key attitudes of commitment, control and challenge. The main attitude relevant here is commitment, that is, attitude of taking a genuine interest in other people and having a curiosity about the world and getting involved with people and activities. The opposite of commitment is alienation, which involves cutting yourself off and distancing yourself from other people. Co-operation and sharing and encouraging positive emotions is also an important tenet of positive psychology.

Broaden and Build – Thriving Rather Than Just Surviving

By this theory of personal development we should focus on investing time in positive emotions to create a buffering effect for stress. It also helps us to accessa broader pool of possible responses in stressful situations rather than the typical fight or flight responses. It’s easy to see how aggression, anger and competition have immediate short-term gains in terms of survival. However, co-operation and altruism have a key role in building social networks. All off the greatest an most significant things in history have been acheived through co-operation. When we are stressed we have a very narrow view of the world. When commit to relax we are able to reach a broader range of human emotions and cognitive responses and connect with others. It’s the difference between thriving and merely surviving. Confident people put other people at ease. We learn more effectively when we relax. It brings out the best in people.

The Confidence-Karma Approach to Confidence and Esteem Building.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodMaslow’s hierarchy of needs, psychological hardiness and the broaden and build approach are the basis of confidence-karma. In short, we build confidence in ourselves as a by-product of turning our attention outwards and building confidence in others. As a social psychologist it is not surprising that I am going to emphasize the value of promoting the social sides of our psychological make-up over the ‘self-serving’.  However with this approach you get both! To find out more see: Unlock Your Confidence. Find the Keys to lasting Change with the Confidence-Karma Method.

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4 Ways to Deal with Overwhelming Life Challenges

Facing up to a new challenge can be overwhelming especially when it seems like totally unchartered territory. Sometimes we doubt ourselves and overlook our past experiences and transferable skills. This leads to a dip in self-confidence. However, often, the only difference between a new challenge and an old challenge is perception. If we perceive something as novel then we might assume that it needs a novel approach whereas what it needs is an application of what we already know. We tend to process information by making connections and create scripts or templates that help us to cut down on the amount of novel information we need to process. It’s a form of cognitive economy.  When faced with a problem or a challenge, we don’t start with a blank slate. We attempt to fit new experiences into old scripts. However when under stress we often don’t make important connections with our life experiences. This means that self-doubt overshadows self-assurance.

Changing Attitudes – Changing Perceptions

We make sense of the world through out attitudes. By changing our attitude we gain a different perspective. This is at the heart of my approach to (life) coaching. My first foray into coaching was as a teaching fellow at my first university job. My open door policy meant that students often dropped in for a chat. Often conversations were about feeling overwhelmed by the pressures of studying. My job was to work out whether I could help or whether I needed to refer the students on. Often, a chat was enough.

I adopted this approach long before I had any formal coaching training and I still use the approach today. It is based on four principles: relax, consider choice, evaluate past experiences, and goal-setting.

  1. Relax. Stress has the effect of reducing our options. It throws us into survival mode where the main choices are fight or flight. However this means that other important options and connections can get overlooked. By taking a few long, slow deep breaths we short-circuit the stress response so that we are able to explore a range of responses. This is known as the Broaden and Build approach to personal development.
  2. Consider choices. Sometimes challenges seem to offer no choice. We feel forced or pressured with no control over our circumstances. I’ve lost count in my own life when I faced challenges that seemed too overwhelming that I wanted to give up. This is especially true of just about any course or path of study I have undertaken. However, this is perfectly normal. It acts like a safety valve to know that giving up is an option. The first time I used this technique was with a student who arrived at my office door quite distraught. She said that she couldn’t cope with the pressure and just wanted to go down to the coach station, get on a bus and get away from it. I took a risk and asked ‘where would you go?’ This took her aback and she replied ‘I don’t know. Blackpool? Anywhere’. I simply pointed out that it was an option. She could not bother with forthcoming exam and just go to Blackpool (an English seaside town) instead. She then started to ask questions about her future to which I replied ‘Well, you’re going to have to come up with some different plans, it’s up to you’. It was then that she realised that she was choosing to put herself through the ‘ordeal’ of examinations. It wasn’t long before she decided she needed to ‘take her leave’ (but not to Blackpool). She said ‘I can’t hang around all day chatting, I’ve got an exam to revise for’. Realising that it was a choice altered her perception of the challenge.
  3. Past successes – Make a list of occasions where you felt overwhelmed in the past and how you managed to get through it. How did you do it? What skills or personal qualities did you use? This will help you to put the new challenge into context. Start with a few long slow deep breaths and get as much down on paper as you can. Take time to add to the list. In my coaching I often follow up a question with ‘anything else?’ I’ll do this several times. This prompt invariably inspires more thoughts and insights. Sometimes during a coaching session a client will think of something else they have forgotten. It’s also true that insights often occur right at the end of a session. Reviewing past successes and skills is a key way to boost self-efficacy, our sense that we are effective agents in the world and not passive victims.
  4. Goal-setting. It’s a core principle of goal-setting to break bigger goals into smaller milestones. A longer term goal comprises a series of shorter term goals. There’s no such thing as a insignificant first step. Simply by making a start you alter your perception of a goal. Once you have tackled the first step, the second step becomes clearer. Also, sometimes chipping away at a problem from a few different angles can help to highlight the ‘vulnerabilities’ of a seemingly impenetrable challenge. Making a start before you can see all the way ahead begins to create a path.

Book Cover: Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary WoodThese four strategies are key to coping with challenges and building confidence, self-efficacy and esteem. Together they form a solution-focused, skills-oriented approach that has the effect of changing attitudes and therefore altering perceptions.It is through this different set of lenses that we are able to access our core strengths, transferable skills and personal experiences.

For further information see Unlock Your Confidence by Dr Gary Wood.

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