A gem cannot be polished without friction, nor a man perfected without trials. — Seneca
A lot of our life is us running away from obstacles or problems. Why?
Because of our evolutionary primitive “limbic” parts of our brain. Seth Godin simply calls this the “lizard brain” that defaults to fight or flight mode when faced with a challenging situation.
“The lizard is a physical part of your brain, the pre-historic lump near the brain stem that is responsible for fear and rage and reproductive drive. (from Seth Godin’s post)”
A secondary and I believe an even more influential reason is our life-long habits that we’ve developed right from when we were a child. We were trained for hundreds of times to “avoid pain” from trivial moments like dodging an oncoming ball to not messing with an angry furious parent. Just avoid pain, we’re told.
But here’s the thing. Once you become an adult, you will realize life is JUST IMPOSSIBLE without moments of pain and stress.
You may not be the one who is choosing these moments but they keep happening anyway.
Your generally supportive boss suddenly throws an anger tantrum and blames you for a project’s failure.
Your generally supportive friend suddenly becomes distant and spreads false rumors about you because she is jealous.
Your generally kind partner decides to break into a scene for something you did so innocuously (this could go you both ways).
None of this is fair, of course. Ideally, no one should be giving the other person any pain. Including themselves. But life is imperfect and largely unfair.
The challenge is painful moments is “keeping perspective”. Perspective is knowing the difference between a moment of pain and a life time of pain.
Our lizard brains use the same “flight or fight” mechanism developed to escape serious life-altering circumstances like getting caught in forest fire to trivial life situations like your parent or partner being upset with you.
Here are a few ways you can counter the ‘urge to judge’ and lose perspective:
1) Acknowledge that you are in an awkward moment but it’s temporary
Channel your inner wisdom to realize that this is a temporary moment of pain. It’s effects cannot derail you or break your character. Some people find this particularly hard because they view life and people as perfect and anything less than that shocks and saddens them. Let me be honest, I am one of those people. I am learning to reset my expectations on life, especially as far as people are concerned.
2) Re-frame the situation as the “other person” looking for help
Generally, if a person “suddenly” acts out of character or with a clear loss of inner peace, this means they NEED some help. People tend to use one of the two methods to call for help. (Self-pity or anger) A lot of this is habitual. I have people in my life who are upset and fussy when they actually signalling a bit of attention or empathy. I also have people in my life (including me) who are irrationally sad when really what they need is some peace and love. Either way, don’t read too much into the methods but practice reading between the lines and get straight to the emotion and try to help!
3) Remove yourself from the “victim” mentality — it’s not about you, think for a second about them instead
This is SUPER tricky. When there’s a method of self-pity or anger deployed, it is generally destructive and forces the other person to lose their logical rational abilities. I believe it puts their brain to freeze mode so they might be saying stupid shit which normally they don’t mean. Your job is to NOT get caught up in these trivial sentences and re-focus on the task at hand — helping them get over this hurdle. You CANNOT claim to be a victim and suddenly lengthen this cycle and turn it into an unbreakable loop. The worst thing you can do here is to be sad or angry at them back. It’s the least wise decision because .. remember their rational brain is frozen right now and you are squandering your energy and hurting them further.
4) Contemplate all the benefits of being the bigger person
If you don’t remove yourself, there is a secondary problem. Your ego gets in the way. Your ego now argues how your priorities are more important than being a caring and loving to the other person. It says “isn’t it their job to make ME happy?”
The answer is NO. Ideally, it’s no one’s job to make you happy. If in some rare circumstances when the other person has abundance of joy, they may make you happy but you can’t be entitled or attached to these pleasant feelings and keep expecting them. It is YOUR job to make yourself happy and you have a choice right here right now in front of you staring — “just break this cycle and help the other person”. Boom within a few moments (or days), you will restore your inner peace and eventually theirs too. But if you choose to partake in this trivial fight and continue the cycle, to feed your ego, you’ll make things worse for YOU and have to FACE ALL THE RANDOM HATEFUL CRAP they say and wonder why there’s so much darkness in them. No, there isn’t. There is darkness in our lizard brains and it just does dumb shit sometimes. Don’t look in other people’s garbage cans.
5) Pat yourself in the back for remaining cool headed in a tricky slippery situation
It takes courage and a strong will to be above your own ego and break the cycle but remember the benefit, INNER PEACE.
Self-control is strength. Right thought is mastery. Calmness is power. — James Allen
6) Give all of this some meaning
If you are pained by any external thing, it is not this thing that disturbs you, but your own judgment about it. And it is in your power to wipe out this judgment now.- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
The beauty of life is that you have the power to impute whatever meaning you want to situations that happen in your life. You can erase the crappy meaning and give it a nobler wise meaning. The way I see learning to manage difficult circumstances just as learning how to handle weights in the gym. You need to manage heavy weights to learn to become fitter physically. The same way you need to practice handling difficult moments to become a more emotionally resilient human.
This is as much an article to help someone else as it a guide to navigate tricky situations myself. So, excuse my rambling if it felt too much but I would love to hear how you handle messy situations yourself. What are your keys? Please share — I would love to learn and be better :)