What if you could get yourself unstuck when you’re spinning negatively in your head? What if you could reframe any moment of upset almost instantly? Actually, you can do both.
Right now, there’s a complex, lightning-fast little process happening in your mind all the time, responsible for all of your decisions, your happiness or misery, and your confidence, too. Most of the time, we’re unaware of it. But right now, we're going to get it…
First, a reality check. That thing you refer to mentally or verbally as “the reality" of a situation, often isn’t (the reality). What??? Not to worry– this may turn out to be the best news you’ve gotten in a long time.
You already know that you're not the only one with a little voice in your head, right? That voice can propel you forward or shut you down, and so much in between. Yet, most of the time, it’s doing something much less dramatic– silently piloting you through the hundreds of micro-decisions you make in a day… from conversation to thought to action to reaction. That voice interprets the world to you, to which you respond with action. That works pretty well, except when that interpretation is off, because you're actually a bit skewed, and you don't even realize it. While I am a big fan of trusting one's gut and the true art of honing your intuition, there are also times when your “gut” confuses things, and actually mightbe flat-out wrong.
Quick, real-life example:
In most instances (especially interacting with other people), we’d usually just think of those 2 circles above as links in a chain of incident-and-meaning timeline to explain the reality of how things are. Yet occasionally, new information comes in, and happily busts the reality we’re operating under. In this case, I heard from that colleague more than a month later, in which they gave me an AWESOME cover quote for my book, and apologized for being so delayed, as they were out of the country that whole time on holiday. "Reality" busted! (in a really good way)
Sometimes we need to pause our reactive minds before assigning meaning to things, especially when we're going negative or self-critical (the times we're most prone to skew the meaning we assign).
Welcome to what I call Circles of Reality. It's a constant dynamic in our heads, officially called the perception process, and has been studied by social scientists for decades, who refer to these two things as first order reality vs. second order reality. In our time on it here, this is a tool which is going to save you hours of energy, otherwise wasted...
In any moment, here’s what’s actually happening:
Simply put, Circle #1 is objectively, physically observable facts... what happened. Circle #2 is constructed in our minds, the meaning we create/assign to what happened. Usually this works out great:
Circle #1: I'm in a meeting with colleagues and superiors, and a colleague asks if I can, spontaneously, present a full pitch of a new idea I quickly mentioned to him earlier that day.
Circle #2: I take this as a huge vote of confidence from my colleague, creating an opportunity for me to show my work. (so I do, and crush it)
You can see how that would've gone very differently if my circle #2 was different, like: I take this as a intentional setup from my colleague to fluster me; to make me look both bad and unprepared in front of the team.
Sometimes it’s benign, and we don't even notice...
Circle #1: someone cuts you off while you're driving on the highway
Circle #2: you instantly conclude “That person’s a complete idiot!” (and are retriggered in annoyance/anger every time you get near them in the rest of your 20 minute commute).
Hmm.. is that person actually an idiot? Similarly, was that admired author really avoiding me because of my writing? Nope. In both cases, that’s just our mind, creating stories of meaning, and allowing them to collapse into what we then hold as “reality.” Not good. So…
Take Control of Your Reality
99% of the upsets I coach clients through have to do with these circles collapsing into sometime unproductive. The first step is to separate the circles apart.
To best get the power of this, think right now, of something in your immediate world/interactions, that’s occurred or is bugging you (any moment ranging from irritated/judging to full-on shutting down/acting out). Let’s deconstruct it.
Grab something to write on/with for this. That’s actually critical, because it will get your thoughts into concrete visual form, where they’re much easier to work with and pin down than just swirling about in your mind, where they're slippery. Next…
Draw two circles. Then:
- Label the 1st circle with what actually occurred (no interpretation- just behavioral, fly-on-the-wall reporting of occurrence).
- Label the 2nd circle with what you’ve made it mean, getting all of the story you’ve created in your head out onto that circle.
Now that those circles are separated, consider:
Which circle causes the most drama, upset, and concern?
Answer: Circle #2.
Which circle do we have the most control over?
Answer: Circle #2.
Hmm. So the one that’s causing the most upset is also the one we actually can control? Yep. Hence the conflicting complexity yet beauty of being human. This is what separates us from other species on the planet- our ability to interpret, discern, make meaning, and choose our perception in this way. Why?
Because Circle #2 is your story. You made it up based on our internal operating system (our filter) and the narration of that little voice in our head. Yet, no matter how much justification for that meaning/story of Circle #2, you don’t actually know it to be fact (otherwise it would be in Circle #1). Stories are powerful, and as soon as we create them, we tend to believe them, trust them (“trusting one’s gut”), and expand them, swelling that 2nd circle to be much bigger and more powerful than the 1st circle. Then, as those circles collapse together in our working memory of the event, we seal our operating “reality.”
Yet actually... it’s really mostly story. Alternate stories could be equally plausible, causing you to see things completely differently, yet we usually don’t go there. We stick with the most compelling, most emotional story, because it's usually strongest (emotions usually win the influence game in our heads).
The power of gaining perspective really comes down to being able to step outside yourself, gain a bit of distance or vantage point, and see the picture differently. When you’re in that 2nd circle of negativity, you don’t even see it, because you have no perspective on yourself or the skewed reality you’re allowing to derail or upset you.
So now, you can manually get perspective, and interrupt that pattern…
3. Now draw a 3rd circle. Ask yourself, “What’s another story I could make up about what this means?” Write that interpretation in the 3rd circle.
4. Draw a 4th circle. Ask yourself “What’s a completely opposite story/meaning than the ones I have so far?” Even if it seems ridiculously farfetched, write that story in the 4th circle. If needed, draw a 5th, 6th, etc. circle to get all of the meanings you're making in your mind OUT, and get to one that's healthy.
The key here is perspective- it's not about spinning it into something positive or giving in to those worst-case-scenario fears in your head... get ALL of those out into alternate circles, plus a few less dramatic versions in between, so you can see them all in perspective, and choose one.
Keep reminding yourself that you don’t know (like with objective, concrete, observable proof) that any of these stories are the truth, so they’re all plausible. Even the ridiculous ones.
Create concrete alternate circles/stories until you feel a positive shift; that’s your perception of the situation actually changing. The magic of perspective: With each alternate story you create, the original upset and attachment you had to that 2nd circle (which was controlling you a few minutes ago) starts to lessen a bit.
Sometimes you'll only need to get to the 3rd circle for that shift, sometimes it could take 10 circles (my personal record), which is fine.
5. Finally, look at all of the circles of story you’ve come up with, and ask yourself, “Since I don’t know any of these to be truth, what’s the healthiest version of this for me to hold as my operating reality?” And pick a healthy circle to make your new operating reality. If that seems overly simplistic, remind yourself that the story you're holding onto as "true" is also made up.
Get better at reality.
This is one of the most powerful tools I coach, because it’s such a straightforward reframe, works so fast, and you could practice it in real time 20 times per day if you wanted to. The more you separate your circles apart, the less reactive you become.
Consider your upsets and expectations in play too, which feed and color our Circles of Reality; when expectations aren’t met, it kicks off a new Circle #1 incident, and then Circle #2 is all about the judgment/disappointment between what we expected and what actually happened, right? Here’s a piece to think about (and even share with your team) about that. Check yourself there.
- Notice the filters you tend to have on your second circle… Optimistic? Pessimistic? Different when person X is involved? Own that, and watch out for it in your 2nd circles.
- Catch yourself and call it out to your team when your 2nd circle goes negative or counter-productive. Debunk a negative 2nd circle story and come up with a new story, right there in front of them, which is more productive and positive. Modeling!
- Dig deeper: If you’re using circles of reality, then there’s an upset you’re trying to reframe or dislodge. While you made that 2nd circle meaning in nanoseconds, it also got triggered in the first place by something possibly underneath it, which you need to reveal for maximum clarity and quick moving on.
Other people’s reality:
In using Circles of Reality on someone else (they’re upset, you want to help them to see it another way)… please watch out. Most of us, with great intentions to lead or help, do something like say “Oh no- that’s not what this really means! Look at it this way instead…” and we tell them a 3rd circle. That usually doesn’t work. We’ve all had someone do that to us when we were upset, and thought, “Yeah- you don’t get it. Easy for you to say…” So, no matter how clear it looks to you (of course it does- you're not stuck in that circle like they are!), or how much better your interpretation is, you giving them an alternate 2nd circle just won’t work, because you’re trying to force a perspective shift from the outside-in, which isn’t how our brains are wired. For shift to work, it has to be them stepping outside of their own story to create a new one (that's how a-ha moments happen... in our own heads). Your role? Facilitator, question-asker, possibility-holder. Don’t be daunted by them pushing back on the idea of another interpretation- that’s their emotion about that story (which they’re attached to) in the mix. Remind them that it's all fiction anyhow, so they have more options than they think here... Stay with it.
For this, as with most tools I bring to you, it’s about getting perspective or distance from the emotional/mental traffic jam you’re in at the moment, stepping back from it, seeing whatever insight/pattern/layering is there in your own behavior (the essence of self-awareness), and then making a new call of where you want to go from a place of choice vs. reaction. You’ve got this!