It happened again this week, as it does way too often. I was sitting in a leadership coaching session when my client proclaimed "I'll just distract myself like I usually do." To some, her solution to being spoken to disrespectfully may sound rather innocuous, it was no biggie. But in reality, distracting ourselves from something that is legitimately upsetting, can lead us to tune out and cut off from understanding the situation at hand, weakening our ability to effectively manage it. When we stay aware of what's upsetting us, we increase the likelihood that we can become wiser and more strategic in knowing how to deal with it.
Many bosses in workplaces, parents in homes and partners in relationships are unaware of the way they impact other people, including the people who matter most to them. They operate on automatic pilot and believe that their ways of thinking and their ways of handling matters are just fine. They may appear to be able to discuss differences, but rarely come away from a conversation truly understanding the other person's point of view. And only once in a while, are they able to modify their behavior.
Faced with unpleasant circumstances, many act on instinct and do what's most expedient. We shut down our emotions so as not to feel scared, hurt or shamed. We may move into the mode of "being good" in order to improve the emotional tone of the relationship, or we may go into the mode of "switching the channel," forcing ourselves to think about something completely different from what's at hand.
While tuning out may initially protect us, as a long-term tactic, it will, undoubtedly, undermine us. How we feel when discussing matters with another person tells us a lot about how capable they are of "getting us," how much they can manage their own emotional reactivity, how aware they are of their impact on others, and how safe we can be in revealing ourselves to them. Our feelings provide us with an internal alert system, signaling us when something is strange, off or at the extreme, dangerous. Being attuned to our feelings can provide us with awareness of what's unfair, unsafe or problematic.
So next time you are inclined to check-out, pause and press down on your internal brake pedal. Ask yourself a few questions to determine what triggered the instinct to check-out, what you're thinking about the current situation and what's the worst that could happen if you remain present with mindfulness. Then remind yourself that you are safe and if something is frightening or upsetting to you, you deserve to understand it.
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