Imagine you’re heading to your car with your kids after a movie, and laughing about your favorite scene. You’re enjoying the beautiful evening and the time with your kids, and thinking in the back of your mind about how much fun you had at the beach with them last summer.
Now imagine that a man appearing drunk or unstable suddenly starts yelling threats in your direction while walking quickly toward you. Gone are all thoughts of your vacation, the movie, and the weather. The only thing that matters to you at that moment is getting your kids into the car, locking the door, and driving safely away.
Which, of course, you successfully do. All is well. And sorry for the scare.
But what happened back there? You were having a lovely evening and a threat came out of nowhere. You felt scared for your kids and yourself, and every fiber of your being immediately focused 100% on reacting to the threat.
And thank goodness. Continuing to laugh about the movie and enjoy the evening breeze would have been wildly inappropriate given the situation. The fear narrowed your focus so you could concentrate entirely on dealing with the potential threat. It crowded out everything else that you were seeing, feeling, hearing, and thinking about.
All negative emotions do this to one degree or another – it’s just the way we’re wired. Fear, worry, disappointment, and anger all narrow our focus to varying degrees, but in essentially the same way.
And it isn’t usually as helpful as it was in the movie theatre parking lot.
Our Prehistoric Brains
Our species evolved in a situation of scarcity and danger where survival demanded that our ancestors react more strongly to threats than to pleasures. Reacting to a lion on the savannah was a lot more important than enjoying the sunrise. Our brains share many characteristics with those of early humans, but most of us live in vastly different circumstances than they did. As a result, our automatic responses are often out of synch with the situations in which we find ourselves.
So when we’re worried about an upcoming performance review at work, we can focus on the worry to the point where it feeds on itself, increasing our anxiety and offering no benefit in return. When we’re disappointed because the review wasn’t entirely positive, we can re-live the disappointment again and again, dwelling on our painful feelings instead of figuring out how to resolve the issues. And when we’re angry with someone we love, we can brood about what he or she said or did, feeling more and more alienated and ready to fight with every passing hour. In each of these cases, our focus narrows to the point where we see the situation entirely through the lens of our negative emotions and are unable to deal constructively with the situation at hand.
Change Your Lens for a New Perspective
So how can we change our perspective in the midst of strong negative emotions? Here’s an easy-to-remember method that I’ve found to be really helpful.
Photographers know that when you change lenses, you can get a very different view of things. So next time negative emotions get you stuck seeing things with a narrow perspective, un-stick it by changing your lens.
Worried? Use the Long Lens
Worried about something that might go wrong? One of the most effective ways to cope with worry is to gain psychological distance by imagining ourselves far away from our current circumstances. This technique actually engages areas of our brains that aren’t so caught up in our current worries. So create a vivid picture of yourself five years in the future and see if you’re still so worried about what’s going on in the here and now.
Disappointed? Try a Wide-Angle Lens
Dealing with defeat or disappointment? Take a wider view that includes consideration of possible benefits of the setback. Ask yourself what you might be able to learn from the situation, and how you could constructively use this turn of events to make your life even better.
Angry? Reverse the Lens
Feeling angry with someone who hurt your feelings or let you down? Reverse your perspective and try to see the situation from the other person’s point of view. Even try to imagine how his or her perspective could be right – at least in part. Putting yourself into the other person’s shoes can help get you ready to talk things over with an open heart.
The Benefits of Perspective
With all three of these lenses, the point isn’t to talk yourself out of your feelings, but to get some additional perspective so you can see the situation more clearly and begin to move forward in a productive way. So next time negative emotions narrow your focus to the point where you can’t see your way to resolution, take a few deep breaths, swap in a new lens, and see what a difference a new perspective can make.
Lynda Wallace is a highly sought-after career, life, and executive coach who meets with local clients in her sunny office in Montclair, NJ, and with clients from around the world by phone and video. She wrote the best-selling book A Short Course in Happiness, and teaches her evidence-based coaching methods to hundreds of coaches every year. Lynda spent twenty years as a senior executive at Johnson & Johnson, holds an MBA from the Wharton School, and is a Certified Positive Psychology Coach.
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