Article by Judy Njeri – Freelance Marketer.
The ABC’s of improving self-awareness: Improving your emotional intelligence with active optimism
Have you noticed how quick we are to accept bad news as fact? Once we accept it, we pass it on. It spreads like wild fire, often unchecked. We seem predisposed to negativity and pessimism. Just log on to any social media platform and see what’s trending. It often starts with a rumor, or a bit of information with little context and the vast majority accept it and pile on their own interpretation as fact.
The same thing happens on an individual level. Any time you encounter an unpleasant event, you have an internal conversation. For most of us, the pessimistic voice is very loud and dominates the conversation. Just like we do on social media, we let that voice go unquestioned. That has to change.
In the book the Optimistic Child by Martin E.P. Seligman PhD, optimism is defined as being more than just seeing the positive side of a situation. It’s about seeing the ‘why’ that caused the situation. The real why, not your interpretation. It’s not about focusing on the good and ignoring the bad. It’s about looking at things as they are.
The idea behind being half full or half empty is a matter of interpretation. Half is half. The problem lies with what we think that half means.
The pessimistic view, half empty, would carry with it a belief that bad things always happen. They have the worst luck and no good fortune would ever follow them.
Accurate optimism would have a different kind of hypothesis. Perhaps that’s all they had. Maybe there wasn’t enough for more than one person to get a full glass so everyone got half. Maybe the giver of the drink really doesn’t like you. The thing is, that doesn’t mean that you are unlikable or that everything is going south from that point on.
It is difficult for most of us to be truly objective when facing an obstacle. Let’s say you lost a client at work. Losing that account makes you very anxious. You feel that the loss lies solely on your shoulders. That leaves you depressed. The underlying belief might be that you are incompetent.
Accurate optimism requires you to separate the incident, the emotion and the belief. The incident would be the loss of the account. The resulting emotion is anxious, sad and depressed. The belief is that you are incompetent and solely responsible for the loss. Are you sure that’s true? Breaking down an event in this manner is the first step in helping you to identify your emotions and what causes them.
Emotional Intelligence is the ability to identify and manage ones emotions. This book provides a practical approach to learning true optimism.
The program is designed to be a behavioral vaccine against depression for children. Recognizing that you can’t teach that which you don’t know, they offer helpful exercises for the adults as well. Studies have shown that people who can correctly and specifically identify their emotions are in a better position to manage them and at less risk for depression. As I read more about emotional intelligence, the optimism program seems more relevant.
The ABCDE model of Optimism
A for Adversity
This is the triggering event. The program begins by teaching you how to describe a negative feeling factually.
Let’s go back to our example. You prepared a presentation for a client and you spent days doing the ground work but the client went another way. When you think about how things went down, it’s easy to put in some emotion.
“I completely fumbled over my words which is why this client couldn’t trust us.”
“I knew my colleagues perfume was a complete distraction to the client so it’s her fault.”
Very often we come up with only one version of events and that becomes our truth. It stays that way because we never think to question ourselves.
Step one is describe the event as objectively as possible. Stick to what happened, not how you felt.
B is for Beliefs
Back to our example. You lost a client. When you get that regret you are instantly hit with some kind of emotion. Anger, sadness, regret, anxiety and frustration. Any one of these or a combination will come over you.
These emotions are just the carry-on luggage. The real culprits are the things you tell yourself.
“It’s all my fault.” “It’s this new supervisor; he/she has no clue what this business is about.” “The client simply doesn’t like me, no one does.”
Those of us prone to pessimism will latch on to the first explanation our mind comes up with, and it will often be negative and permanent, believing that you are incapable of turning things around. The opposite could also be equally dangerous. If everything is everyone else’s fault, then once again you have no control which leads to the same feeling of helplessness.
Distinguishing between beliefs and feelings can be a challenge. You can evaluate the accuracy of your beliefs by checking it against the available evidence (P 146). How you felt can’t be challenged. Feeling sad can’t be wrong. On the other hand, a belief that you are incompetent can be challenged by looking at past performance.
This section is not easy, but it is necessary. The program suggests that you deal with “C” first, then double back to the beliefs.
C is for consequence
The consequence is how you felt as a result of your beliefs. The consequence is what we question to help us understand what our underlying beliefs are. It helps to be specific in this section.
It’s not enough to say you felt bad. Are you jealous because you know who your client chose instead? Are you depressed because you think your mistake cost you the client. Are you frustrated, angry or both? This is an exercise you need to do with a pen and a paper so that you can really dissect your feelings.
You will also note down what you did and said as a result of the adversity, linking your feelings to your actions.
D is for Disputation
This is where we put those beliefs that you identified to the test. You’re feeling depressed because you think you’re incompetent. Put this allegation under the microscope. If someone else was to accuse you of anything, you’ll likely put up a fight and defend yourself. When you are accusing yourself, however, you don’t challenge it at all. It’s immediately accepted as fact. We have to change that.
In the book, they outline the 4 pillars of successful disputation.
- Evidence – When you tell yourself you’re terrible at your job, saying “no I’m not” isn’t a strong counter argument. You need to get specific. Now, your mind is already armed with all the times you failed, so you’ll need to sit and work on this one. Find evidence that counters this argument. There is no statute of limitations. Go as far back as your memory allows. Take the time to stop and think through the evidence that supports and also opposes your argument.
- Generating alternatives – Our entire lives are subjective. We interpret every event based on our individual biases. Let’s take a look at our example. First, you find evidence against your inaptitude. Now come up with alternative reasons why the client left. Perhaps it was a budgetary issue. They may have new needs that your firm is not equipped to handle. Imagine someone else’s point of view if you told them about what happened. They are not burdened by your inner voice so it’s up to you to do some role playing. What would they say if you told them what happened?
- Decatastrophizing or accurately evaluating the implications of the adversity – Waiting for bad news is often worse than the actual news. That’s because you travel to an alternate universe in your mind which implodes because of this one bit of news. You lost a client. Your mind goes to this place where because of this one client, you lose your job. You are now unemployable and can’t make bills. Everyone hates you. Your spouse/parents/ children can’t look you in the eye because you are a failure. You live on the street and the other homeless people can’t stand you. It goes on and on.
You need to put a stop to this. The good doctors suggest you ask yourself three questions.
- What’s the worst possible thing that could happen? It seems like your intentionally pushing yourself down that spiral but that’s not it. Very often when you have that sinking feeling of dread, it isn’t very specific. Once again, a pen and paper will be very helpful. Be specific but realistic. There’s a considerable gap between losing a job and being treated like a leper.
- How likely is this? Give the above scenario a probability score.
- What is the best possible result? It should be realistic, even though it is not likely
These will act as your reaction parameters. Knowing what the worst case scenario and the best case is, you can realistically work out what is most likely to happen which is somewhere in the middle.
- Develop a plan of attack – What can you do to improve the situation or improve the probability of a favorable result? If the result can’t be reversed, what can you do to prevent a repeat of the same situation? Perhaps it’s a skill you need to develop. Maybe it’s an email you need to send to ask for feedback. The best way to counter helplessness is to take control of the situation.
E is for Energization
How do you feel after going through the disputation? If it has been done properly, you should feel a lot better about your possibilities. The adversity has already happened and this is not to say that your circumstances will automatically change. It’s still possible that you could lose that job. That client may leave and not look back. They might even sight the fact that it’s you they didn’t like. However, you’re not powerless going forward. By going through the steps, you should have put your beliefs in check and will have reminded yourself of the positives that counter those beliefs. The disputation prepares you for the outcome and reduces the feeling of helplessness. The final outcome is a more positive outlook.
If you’re feeling better at this point, then repeat the exercise, especially the disputation. Generate more alternatives. Give your plan of action a little more work. Make sure you didn’t overlook any evidence to counter your beliefs.
Mastering the model
The model’s effectiveness is dependent on the individual’s ability to internalize and implement all the steps in the heat of the moment. The book provides worksheets so that both adults and children can learn to master these steps.
The author suggests that you carry out rapid fire rounds with a trusted companion. You would run through a few of the scenarios with them. The work of your partner/spouse/child/parent is to be the negative voice in your head. With practice you learn to go from A to E without having to write it all down.
The first pillar of emotional intelligence is self-awareness. Only when you understand your emotions can you learn to manage them and even use them positively. This critical self-assessment of defining and then challenging your inner beliefs will form the foundation of your emotional health.
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