How goes the roller coaster? This is week four of isolation at our house and I’m becoming more and more interested in emotional regulation (not a coincidence). So many of the conversations I’m having with both work peers and friends center on the ups and downs of living through the Covid-19 crisis. Those conversations inspired me to return to some research I uncovered a while back while writing a post about resilience.
How to Feel Better
There are two important mechanisms for coping with difficult situations and their resulting emotions. The first is to accept the existence of negative emotions (e.g., tell yourself it’s ok that you’re feeling short-tempered at the moment, this is an unprecedented time). The second mechanism is to reframe how you’re interpreting the situation into a more positive and constructive story (e.g., a least I’m finally eating less takeout). That’s the formula: when you’re feeling low, you want to first acknowledge that it’s ok to feel low and then shift your take on the situation.
Ha! If this was a classic self-help blog, I could just stop there. But it’s not.
I suspect you’re finding yourself in many spots where self-acceptance and the power of positive thinking are in short supply. What do you do when you just can’t muster that kind of empathy for yourself?
It turns out that one way to enhance the likelihood of using the empathy-reframe method is to do it for someone else. That’s where the research I mentioned comes in.
In the study, research participants spent three weeks sharing their struggles with each other and providing one other with support and advice. (That is, each participant played both roles: helpor and helpee.) The instructions told participants that when they were providing advice, they should first acknowledge the person’s negative emotions and then second, suggest ways the person might reframe their interpretation of the situation.
Over the three weeks, the people who validated others and showed them how to reframe started reframing more of their own challenges as well. They were more empathetic to their own plight and more likely to use reframing as a tool to increase their resilience.
So, here’s my prescription for this week. Find three opportunities to engage with people who are expressing sadness, despair, disillusionment, disappointment, or lethargy. When they share their concerns, validate their experience by saying something such as, “It’s so disappointing to have to postpone the sales kickoff.”
Next, help the person reappraise the situation by adding a reframe, “How could you use the time to create deeper, one-on-one connections with your key reps?” or “You’ve liberated about $500,000 in budget by not flying everyone in and feeding them, what could you put that budget toward that you’ve always wanted to do but could never afford?”
Use a light touch here, this isn’t the time to start ramming action plans down someone’s throat. Nor is it a time to be too perky—don’t forget that there might be a silver lining, but it’s still inside a giant cloud. You could even say, “I’m just wondering what would be possible with the $500,000 we’re not spending on flights and food,” which exposes your perspective without necessarily requiring an answer.
Any Forum Will Do
The great news is that these conversations don’t even have to be in person. The research shows that they don’t even have to be conversations. The study I cited used online interactions where participants logged in through a portal and interacted by typing responses back and forth at different times. Although I will always recommend a video chat over more sparse mediums, don’t be afraid to offer your support through email or on social media.
After you get in a few reps practicing self-acceptance and reframing by helping others to do it, you’ll start to get better at it yourself. I feel like this is the dream scenario where you’re the physical trainer and you get fit while the client does the sit ups. How awesome is that!?!
I understand that this is a really trying time emotionally. It’s completely normal to be fine one moment and to burst into tears or start shouting the next. Rather than trying to fix yourself, what if you could use this opportunity to help yourself by helping others? (see what I did there?)