"Small Shifts in Perspective, Huge Mental Benefits" by Jen Hamilton, Middle School Psychologist
Sometimes small shifts in perspective have a profound impact on how we think and feel. A couple of years ago, an extremely high-achieving middle school boy sat in my office, describing the anxious feelings he gets before taking tests. I observed that he seems to do quite well on tests in spite of his anxiety and asked him how he manages this. His reply was revolutionary, and went something like this:
"You know the feeling you get when you're really anxious? Butterflies in your stomach, heart racing, sweaty palms? If you think about it, that's the same feeling you get in your body when you're really excited about something. So I just tell myself I'm excited to take the test, that it's an opportunity to show what I know, and then I do well."
What a brilliant observation. We have learned from brain research (those of you who have read Po Bronson's book Top Dog, or attended his talk at Nobles a couple of years ago might remember this concept) that this tiny shift in perspective, the shift from viewing something as a threat versus a challenge, can make the difference between your brain being flooded (and thus incapacitated) by dopamine versus being bathed in just the right amount of dopamine to be able to achieve optimal focus.
This idea of small but powerful mind shifts got me searching for other subtle changes we can make in our thinking to increase productivity. What if, the next time you are overcome with anger, you instead try to cultivate a sense of curiosity? Neurology tells us that anger triggers the amygdala (the part of the brain that is involved with the processing and expression of emotions) to take over, replacing our otherwise logical thinking abilities with non-constructive thoughts or irrational stubbornness. Becoming curious about our anger re-engages the pre-frontal cortex (the logical. problem-solving part of your brain.) Bringing your thoughts back to a more cerebral level allows you weigh and assess what is going on instead of just reacting in the heat of the moment. To boil it down, you can't be angry and curious at the same time; they are incompatible.
When you really allow yourself to get curious about what might be underlying your child's behavior when her actions are making you feel angry, you might just realize that she was on her phone after bedtime because she feels the need to fit in. Or perhaps she lied about not getting her test grade back because she was worried about disappointing you. When you are able to look at these issues from a rational place, it may just allow you the mental space to take a few breaths before responding so that your interaction can be more constructive.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this or other parenting issues. Please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.