“I hope you live a life you’re proud of. If you find that you are not, I hope you have the strength to start over again.”
F. Scott Fitzgerald
Have you ever walked out of a room, left a conversation, or even laid your head down on your pillow at night and wished that you could hit the rewind button on a situation, or even on your day? Perhaps you felt like you lost your cool one too many times, or let unpleasant emotions take control of your thoughts, and hijack the course of your day. Maybe you found yourself mid-discussion, mid-argument or even mid-task and felt a twinge of discomfort; the realization that somehow your words or your actions in that moment were not aligning with your hopes or expectations for yourself? In psychology we call this phenomenon cognitive dissonance, and whether we find ourselves gossiping about a friend or work colleague, when we value integrity and kindness, or losing our temper with our children, when we long for a calm and nurturing home life, the unpleasant by-products are often feelings of guilt and regret. As humans, with strengths and weaknesses, we are not always going to make perfect choices, and that’s ok. Forgiving yourself and being flexible in your expectations are important parts of good emotional health. But what if we had a little more control over our thoughts and our behaviour in those important moments? What if we could feel a little less at the mercy of our emotions, and a little more empowered to set the tone in a positive way across the different settings in our life? The good news is that it’s never too late in your day, your week, or your life to start with a new course of action, or to be more like the person you aspire to be. All you need is self-awareness, consistency and forward planning.
It starts with becoming more aware, emotionally and physically, of how you behave across the different areas of your life. When we are rushing, or preoccupied, it is difficult to connect with our experiences in a mindful way, and therefore more difficult to make positive choices. I often talk to clients about the importance of the various transitions in their day, or the moments when they move from one task or setting to another. Many of us, particularly when we are busy, will make these shifts in a very distracted way, sometimes carrying the emotional junk from the previous setting (for example, irritation and anxiety from a disagreement in the car with your spouse) into the next (picking up kids from school, or visiting friends). This not only steals joy and energy from our next experience, but it also makes it more difficult to manage our emotions and to behave in a way that matches our values. It’s helpful to view emotions as simply information about how we are reacting to an experience, rather than indicators about the truth of a situation, and they do not need to set the tone for the rest of our day. By giving ourselves a minute to reset, and taking a deep breath or two to calm our nervous system and feel more centered, we soothe the emotional part of our brain and make it easier to connect with logic and wisdom. This provides space to enter the next situation calmly and with a clear intention, and to leave the baggage from the previous one behind.
To behave with intention, it’s helpful to have a clear idea of the values that are most important to us, whether they be love, justice, peace, compassion, kindness, creativity, or honesty, and apply them to our situation. When we don’t know our values clearly, we can feel like rudderless ship, drifting to and fro in the ocean, with our behavior governed mainly by our ever-changing emotions and circumstances. Our values provide something consistent and logical to come back to when frustration or fear overwhelms us or we are under pressure, and can help us set the tone, and have a powerful positive influence in our relationships, our home, our workplace and even within our social and community groups. Values provide a type of map to navigate the many decisions we need to make each day, and to manage difficult interactions. They create a rhythm in your life that will allow you find your way, even in the most challenging circumstances.
Throughout our week, and even our day, we move through many settings. Waking up and greeting our children, dropping them off at school, going to work or catching up with friends, and greeting our children and partner again at the end of the day. Sometimes these situations feel insignificant, or our influence in these settings is unseen and unknown. However, each provides an opportunity to be intentional and apply positive values, and in turn to make a positive impact on others and experience meaning, personal growth and better mental health. It’s no secret that some wonderful by-products of behaving in a way that is consistent with our values are peace and contentment. While speaking calmly to our children, praising a colleague in their absence, or checking in about the health of a teacher may feel less than ground-breaking at the time, added together these actions form the fabric of our identity, and determine the long-term impact we will have in our family, workplace, and community. As Martin Luther King once said, “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things in a great way.”