Do you know the Taylor Swift song, “Look what you made me do”, with this line on repeat?
I hear a version of it so often in conversation for both myself and others: “My mum has just made me really angry”; “That woman has just caused me so much stress this past year”; “You are just making me feel so cross”. Do you recognise yourself saying any of these things either as part of your internal monologue or out loud? I know that I do, hence why I am writing this.
Just this morning, I was reflecting on the call I had with my mother yesterday. She was saying that my 14-year-old was playing too much on his computer and given all the money we are paying for his education that he needs to knuckle down - which I agree with. Just before that conversation, my son and I had sat down and had worked out a schedule for homework and revision, which was fairly considered and not too onerous. So, this morning, I was replaying conversations and scripts and I was feeling really angry at my son, using the internal monologue of “You (my son) are making me so angry”. I was then starting to think about the candid conversations that I was going to have to have… However, before that storm happened, I was able to catch myself and reflect. Who gets to decide the emotions I am feeling? It’s not my son or my mother or my business partner or my clients. It’s me. I decide. It can often feel like I haven’t actively made that decision and that’s because many times, I haven’t. It’s an unconscious response. There is loads of neuroscience about this. We are emotional creatures. If you want to know more about the neuroscience behind this, do contact me.
I then started to think about what was really going on here and why I was angry and actually where my anger was really drawn to. It wasn’t my son per se, it was really my mum. Why was I feeling angry with my mum? My reflection is that I was feeling judged as a parent and in my head, she is saying that I am not doing enough or good enough. So now we start to get to it. It’s my sense of identity and expertise that is being called into question by my mum questioning my son’s work attitude. When you see it written down it can look a bit silly, but in my head it felt real and these sorts of internal narratives are happening all of the time to all of us.
These internal narrative debates and frustrations do not just happen in home; they also happen in the workplace. I have a client who was telling me how stressed he has been over the past year, as one of his reports has been an absolute nightmare. The report is difficult, precious, conflictual in the office and demanding. As a result, my client has said this colleague has made him stressed. Again, we have to ask who decides how stressed we decide to get. We do. We are the ones that make choices about how we want to respond to situations. So, in this instance it is my client who has decided that his response reaction will be a distressful one for him.
That is not to say that some situations are more difficult than others. That is definitely the case. In London, people seem to have so much more on their plates than they did 10 years ago, as the whole ‘more for less’ mantra, took over the city. And in those environments, we have less time to think. We are in react mode. And when we are in react mode, we respond with habits and scripts and heuristic shortcuts built over the years. This all means that unless we consciously think about it, in those stressful environments we are responding as if triggered. We are on guard. We are looking for the offensive and so our natural reactions to those states are starting to kick in. At the high level – Fight, Flight, Freeze or Flop. Fight is coming back with a quick defensive response. Being chippy or blunt. Flight is when we turn away from the problem. We hope that others will resolve or it will disappear. Freeze is when we just don’t respond with anything. We might be internalising responses but don’t say them. Flop is when we move into breakdown territory. As you can see that in both the work environment and the home environment, most of the time, these responses can be unhelpful and in extreme situations (inappropriateness or a fairly constant response), these can be destructive for both ourselves and others.
So, how do we work with this? It is one of the most fundamental of adult development shifts and it is learning how to take responsibility for your actions and your responses. You are the person who gets to decide how you want to respond. If you are in a high stress environment, the need for reflection and planning time is even more critical. It is vital as in high pressure systems, individuals are more prone to the unconscious behaviours coming out. When we are operating at an unconscious level, we are very subject to whatever is going on and we are just in a responsive mode. The ability to lift ourselves out of the narrative and to see what is happening is imperative.
How can you get time to be more conscious?
1. At the end of each day, internally reflect on your day. What was triggering you today? Why was that? What was going on for you? Write out particular scenarios. The act of writing or verbalising can help us step back from the narrative and be more objective with it.
2. Talk to someone about particular scenarios. Even if you just ask them to listen it can help you get some perspective on it.
3. Work with a coach. A skilled coach can help you understand your unconscious patterns and how to help move them towards a more conscious and considered way of working and being.
As with all of these techniques, try not to be too judgmental on yourself (for example, I could say to myself that I am stupid for getting angry with my mum, or I can say that it’s good that I have noticed this pattern), as this can then feed the negative mind talk. So notice and reflect. The stronger you get at noticing your own patterns and responses, the easier it will be to notice them earlier and nip them in the bud before they become the storms that don’t need to happen!
I tried to think of another Taylor Swift song to round this off and provide a good ending, however my ignorance failed me. If you know of a good lyric that might summarise this article, then do get in contact and let me know.
Shauna McVeigh works at H³ as a BPS HPC registered leadership Psychologist and ICF accredited coach. H³ develops thriving individuals, successful organisations and communities through impactful change. Shauna works with individuals and teams so that they can understand themselves better and how they can bring their own genius to bear as well as casting light on the shadows which may hold them back. She can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org.