by Pamela Slim
If I were to attach a giant magic probe to foreheads across the U.S. right now, what emotion do you think would be off the charts?
Market meltdowns, government bailouts, war, natural disasters and election uncertainty make this point in history a pretty unsettling one, at least for those of us in the United States.
However, I would guess that under the general feeling of panic, there are some other emotions which are causing people to feel paralyzed.
As my friend Colleen Wainwright said recently, “What is really harshing your mellow?”
Chapter Eight of Martha’s book Finding Your Own North Star offers an extremely simple but highly effective way to decipher your emotional state, asking the question: “Are you more sad, mad, glad or scared?“
This works like magic with my clients that feel foggy, conflicted and totally stuck. When I ask “how do you feel?” they often do not have an answer. But with the question, “are you more sad, mad, glad or scared,” most will immediately choose one of the words, like “mad” or “scared.”
Once the primary emotion is identified, we dig down and find out what is causing it. With the cause identified, we define what course of action is necessary to get them to feel better. Once they see a path forward, the original emotion almost always dissipates, or at least does not feel so overwhelming.
So if you are feeling stuck and uncomfortable in some part of your life but don’t know what to do about it, try this 4-part exercise from Finding Your Own North Star:
Magic Question #1: What are you feeling?
1. Right now, are you feeling more sad, mad, glad or scared? Even if your feelings are very mild, try putting them in one of these categories.
2. Now write down at least six different words, besides those listed above, that describe your feelings at this moment.
3. Think of three works of art (songs, movies, images, poems, plays, books, etc.) that resonate with your current emotional state.
4. What do these works have in common?
5. Complete the following sentences. Don’t think about grammar or spelling; just shoot for emotional accuracy. No one has to see this but you.
a. I wish …
b. I hope …
c. I’m angry that …
d. I’m afraid that …
e. I’m sad about …
f. I’m happy about …
g. If it weren’t embarrassing, I’d feel …
h. Even though it’s stupid, I feel …
Magic Question #2: Why am I feeling this way?
Those of you who have young children will immediately recognize this exercise. It is attributed to the Japanese car manufacturer Toyota who used it in their rigorous quality program to drive production efficiency, but we all know that they just stole it from a bright toddler (Mom, do I have to eat this ohitashi? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why?).
1. What was the strongest emotion that emerged as you did the exercises from Magic Question #1?
2. Why do you feel this way?
When you get to the real reason you are not feeling good, you may find the answer is not one you want to hear. Martha says:
“One way you can always tell when people have lost touch with their emotions, or are unwilling to admit to them, is that when you ask them about their motivations, they’ll say, “It’s complicated.”
The Question: Why didn’t you call me last night?
The Answer: “Um…it’s complicated.”
The Truth: “I didn’t want to.”
The Question: “You seem so distant; what’s wrong?
The Answer: “Well, it’s complicated.”
The Truth: “I don’t like you.”
The Question: “Don’t you want to date me anymore?”
The Answer: “It’s just complicated.”
The Truth: “No.”
Usually, people who use the “complicated” line actually believe it themselves. They think of emotion as a tangled web of contradictory forces. This is because their emotional compasses are pointing in directions that offend their Everybodies or their social selves. The only way out of a “complicated” emotional situation is to figure out which feelings are coming directly from your core and which are imposed on you by social fears and obligations.”
This exercise can be very helpful for going from big, global problems like “the state of the economy” or “greedy corporations” to something specific that is within your control to change. Here is a common scenario which you may relate to:
What are you feeling? “I am angry at my company for laying people off.”
Why? “Because it should care more about employee loyalty.”
Why? “Because I work my heart out and expect to get something in return.”
Why? (I usually amplify this question by asking “Have they given you any recent evidence they will reward your loyalty with lifetime employment?”) “Because I am ignoring the fact that companies have not rewarded employee loyalty with lifetime employment for a long time, if ever.”
Why? “Because then I have to take responsibility for my own career, and that is scary.”
Why? Because I have limited networks outside my job and don’t know what else I could do to make money.”
Bingo. In this scenario, there are two prevalent emotions: anger and fear. In order to get to a pragmatic course of action like working on alternate career paths, you may need to release some anger. Releasing anger can also lead to grief: longing for the way companies used to be, when you did not have to be so fearful of layoffs and where long-term employment with one company was encouraged and desired. Once these emotions are expressed, you can get to work on the one thing in your control: your own career path.
Magic Question #3: What will it take to make me happy?
Part of what keeps people paralyzed is that they believe that the only way they will feel better is by expecting others to change. Using my recent example, you can see examples of useless and useful yearnings:
Useless Yearning: “I want corporations to stop laying people off.”
Useful Yearning: “I want to develop a career path that will not be dependent on the rise or fall of any one corporation.”
Useless Yearning: “I want Wall Street Traders to stop being so greedy.”
Useful Yearning: “I want to have my money in stable, smart investment vehicles.”
Useless Yearning: “I want things to go back to the way they were, before all this doom and gloom.”
Useful Yearning: “I want to learn how to feel grounded and positive, regardless of what chaos is going on around me.”
1. Think about a situation that makes you feel angry, sad or scared. What is it about this situation that you wish were different?
2. Think about a situation that makes you happy. Which elements of this situation do you want to keep?
3. What do you want most right now?
4. What do you really want most right now?
Try to get to a description of something you want that is within your span of control, even if it involves the help of others to make it happen.
Magic Question #4: “What’s the Most Effective Way to Get What I Want?”
1. Think of a very inexpensive item you’d like to own, such as a Popsicle or a shiny new pencil with your name stamped on it in gold-colored letters. Make sure it’s something you don’t own a the moment. Note what the object is in this space:
1. Now think of six ways you can get the item you just named without leaving your house. You can use any communications devices or other technologies at your disposal, and you definitely don’t have to go it alone. (Magic question No. 4 is all about working with others to reach your objectives.) Even if the methods you come up with aren’t things you’re really comfortable doing (like borrowing or calling third parties to ask for help), list them. You may build up some courage, and even if you don’t, you’ll find that refusing to censor your inventiveness will lead to more solutions.
3. Read over the solutions you have listed, and see if any of them are a) possible, b) legal, and c) morally acceptable to you. If an action plan fulfills all these criteria, go ahead and use it.
4. Double-check to make sure your social self isn’t ruling out workable solutions. Here are some signs that your social self is acting as your master, rather than your servant:
a. When you think about putting the solution into action, you find yourself laughing in embarrassment.
b. You react to the proposed solution with thoughts like “I could never do that” or “I can’t just…” or “But I have to…” These statements tend to reflect social inhibitions, not actual limitations.
c. You immediately think of some person who’d be upset if you took this course of action, or you stop yourself with the question “What would people think?”
5. If you have had any of the reactions above, consider whether you might want to break the rules of the social game. Be sure you stay within the confines of your own moral system; violating your integrity will lead you directly away from your own North Star.
Once you complete this trial exercise, guess what: time to try it with something you really want from Magic Question #3.
And if you are still feeling a bit scared at this point, I am hoping that it is no longer the “we are doomed, the sky is falling” variety, but rather specific, healthy anxiety that comes up when you start working on getting what you want.