How we interpret events doesn’t only affect how we feel; it affects what we do.
And that can make all the difference in the world.
I often lead workshops on topics such as managing anxiety, cultivating optimism, and developing strong relationships. It’s something I really enjoy doing. But until now, I’ve only offered those workshops to adults. Yesterday, I led a workshop for a group of tenth grade students.
While I usually look forward to my workshops, I noticed late in the week that I felt a little anxious about this one. What if the students weren’t interested in the material? What if they didn’t take the exercises to heart or participate in the discussions?
I began to wish I hadn’t agreed to offer it. The day before the workshop, I found myself thinking, “I’m so busy right now, I really don’t need this extra thing to worry about.”
Then it struck me – it’s a workshop about emotional well-being and anxiety management, for heaven’s sake. Time to pay attention to my own material! So that’s exactly what I did.
Interpretation and Anxiety
In 1997, Dr. Joe Tomaka and his colleagues conducted a study with students who routinely experienced significant test anxiety. The study was simple. These students were given a test and asked to complete it. Half of the students were instructed to spend sixty seconds before the test thinking of the test not as a threat but as a challenge, an opportunity for them to show what they knew.
The students who spent that one minute re-framing the situation from a threat to an opportunity experienced much less test anxiety and did significantly better on the test than the students who hadn’t done the one-minute exercise.
I know this research backward and forward. I discuss it with clients all the time. But in this situation, I had to consciously remind myself to take it to heart.
So here’s what I did.
I took out a piece of paper and spent a couple of minutes writing down ways that I could consider the upcoming workshop as an opportunity for me rather than a somewhat stressful obligation. I jotted down that this is material that I genuinely value, that I care a lot about young people and was actually fortunate to have the opportunity to teach them something good and useful, and that I might very well learn something from their responses, stories, and insights.
By the time I was done writing, I could feel the difference in my attitude toward the workshop. I began to look forward to it. And because I’d written it down rather than just thinking about it, it was easier for me to remember it when I needed a little reinforcement of my more positive thoughts about the workshop.
Here’s the most interesting part. I didn’t just think differently about the workshop. I acted differently in the workshop. Because I was thinking of it as an opportunity to share something that really mattered to me with people who could benefit from it, I felt more at ease and was more energetic, more creative, and better able to really listen to what the students had to say. The change in my attitude caused me to act differently than I otherwise would have, and I led a better workshop because of it.
Interpretation and Action
When we re-frame experiences, we don’t just change our thoughts. Our thoughts impact our feelings, and together they lead us to actually behave differently – and to get different results. It goes something like this.
DIFFERENT INTERPRETATION → DIFFERENT FEELINGS → DIFFERENT ACTIONS → DIFFERENT RESULTS
Actually, I suppose that should be in a circle, because when we act differently and get different results, that in turn changes our thoughts and our feelings. It’s a virtuous circle, and one well worth cultivating.
HERE ARE A FEW MORE WAYS TO USE THE POWER OF INTERPRETATION IN YOUR LIFE
WHEN SOMETHING YOU DO GOES POORLY
Re-frame it from proof of your inadequacy to an opportunity to grow and learn. This change in perspective can cause you to look for the lessons you can take from the experience — and once you find them, you’re likely to act on them.
WHEN SOMEONE HURTS YOUR FEELINGS
Try to re-frame the experience from something to suffer through to a chance to express yourself, open up the lines of communication, and improve your relationship.
WHEN YOU DON’T FEEL LIKE GOING FOR THAT RUN OR WALK
Re-frame it from an unpleasant chore to a chance to take a break, stretch your legs, and get outdoors.
It can take some practice, but people who routinely take these steps to re-interpret feelings and events have been shown to learn more from failures, get more exercise, improve their relationships, and get past disappointments and setbacks more quickly. Some of these benefits come from the good feelings associated with a more positive perspective. But the biggest impacts come from the ways that those positive interpretations and feelings actually lead to different behavior.
After all, how we interpret events doesn’t only affect how we feel. It affects what we do. And that can make all the difference in the world.
Source: Cognitive and Physiological Antecedents of Threat and Challenge Appraisal, by Joe Tomaka and colleagues, Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1997
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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