The story is told of a couple sleeping soundly one night when suddenly they were awakened by some strange sounds from downstairs. The wife insisted that her husband go downstairs to check things out. The husband arose and went downstairs reluctantly, armed with a putter, grumbling all the way. To his surprise, he found a burglar in the dining room busy emptying the drawer with all the silverware. “Stay right where you are,” he said to the burglar. “I want to run upstairs to get my wife. She’s been expecting you for the last thirty years!”
If we are honest many of us are just like the wife in this story, we are expecting burglars in our professional and personal lives all the time. Psychologist Albert Ellis coined the term “awfulizing” to express the reality that at times we can get caught up in exaggerating a feared outcome or seeing minor setbacks as catastrophes. He notes that a possible outcome is the creation of a chain of negative thoughts, feelings, and actions.
How often has something happened to us and we have created our own story around it which raises our stress and anxiety levels when our own thoughts about that thing are simply not based in reality? Perhaps we are giving a presentation at work and one of the attendees is yawning and fidgeting. We interpret it personally as reflecting that we are boring and not connecting with our colleagues. That’s only the beginning. From there we begin to make judgments about our ability to competently give a presentation and if we cannot do that what hope is there for a promotion. Before long we have ‘awfulized” a situation without even considering the possibility that our colleague was up all night with a sick child and they are just exhausted and need some sleep.
How can we change this all-too-common habit?
If we are to change this, then it is vital we recognize that as human beings, storytelling is at the core of our being. It’s part of our DNA. We are meaning-making machines, and we make meaning through stories. As such we do not like unfinished stories. We crave for a conclusion, for closure. Why does our favorite TV series always finish each episode with a cliffhanger? Well, they know we will be more likely to tune in next week for closure. I am old enough to remember one of the most famous cliffhangers in all TV history. Who shot JR? It gripped the world for months. Those of you who are younger just Google it. What this means is that we are just brilliant at making up stories about everything that happen to us. Unfortunately, many of the stories we make up are negative, or as Ellis says, “awfulizing” an outcome.
The first step in changing this is to become aware when we are in storytelling mode. To recognize that we have made meaning out of a situation and information we had. More often than not, we do not have the complete information. A really powerful question for us to ask is, “what evidence do I have that supports the story I have created?” If the evidence is weak, and it normally is then a really great follow up question is, “what other stories could there be?
A second step is to make sure some of these alternative stores are positive and not just a continuation of something that is going to go wrong.
When we are on edge expecting the burglar or something awful to happen, we are not living in the present. Our energy is poured into a future event of our own creation or is dwelling on a past event we cannot change. It is in the present that we find our most creative and productive selves.
I created an exercise to help us return to the present moment and become aware when we have drifted off into unhelpful thoughts and mindsets. It’s called the 7-Second Reset. It is a practice that can be incorporated anytime and anywhere in order to change the quality of your presence in the present moment. It has three simple steps.
Step 1 – Uncross your legs and feel your feet firmly on the Floor. This simple act has the power to disengage you from your mental and emotional storytelling and bring you back to the present.
Step 2 – Breathe in for 3 seconds and begin to notice where in your body you are feeling tightness. Feel the incoming air and visualize it entering any areas of stored tension. Notice your posture. Is your body closed and in a defensive position?
Step 3 – Breathe out for 3 seconds and begin to relax any part of your body that feels tense, your shoulders, your jaw or your chest. Adjust your posture to one that feels more engaged and open.
You can download a copy of the exercise here:
Also, You might also be interested is one of my latest YouTube Videos which explores, “How do you practice mindfulness throughout the day?”