That’s life … Not!

October 8, 2012

Do you remember the Smurfs? Little blue creatures with white hats. Three apples high. Very strong characters. The fact is that their personalities are so distinct that each one is named after it’s strongest character trait. We’ve got Clumsy Smurf, Happy Smurf, Angry Smurf, Grumpy Smurf and countless others.

They like to sing as well. At least here in Sweden they used to sing a song about everyone of us having an inner smurf. They were wrong. We don’t have ONE inner smurf; all of them live within all of us. Inside our heads, the entire smurf village is represented. Inside your head is a board of directors consisting of Papa Smurf, Angry Smurf, Poet Smurf and all the other smurfs.

Your board of directors

The problem is that we learn at an early age that all smurfs are not born equal. Sure, we cherish a couple of them; Pretty Smurf, Smart Smurf, Kind Smurf and a couple of others while we suppress most of them. We create rules along the road for which smurf to bring out at what occasion. One of the first things we learn as newborns is to bring out Scream Smurf when we want some attention. Then, while growing up, we create new rules that benefit us better in the new situations that we have to face. But somewhere along the way we stop evaluating our rules. The rules harden and become an integrated part of us and finally we sit there with a small number of smurfs that we only let out at very given occasions.

Not all smurfs are created equal

Clumsy Smurf, Greedy Smurf, Ugly Smurf and Crying Smurf are not let out into the open if we can stop them. Sometimes we can see them in other people, representing their bad sides and sometimes we can even hear them quietly inside our own heads but they make us feel ashamed and we shut them up as quickly as possible. We suppress Egotist Smurf until he’s no longer three apples high, but only a molding apple core sitting quietly in the corner.

When we restrain these alternative sides of ourselves, we also limit our emotional degrees of freedom. We’re stuck with only one possible emotion to bring out for each situation that we have to face. Remember that there are rules for how we should behave! The situations become governing for us and we feel cornered since we don’t have any freedom of choice on how to act. That’s also when we begin to blame our emotions on the world around us.

– Oh, you make me so mad when you talk like that!
– You make me sad when you act that way.
– You! You make me feel violated.

We can’t choose what will happen to us, but we can always choose how to handle the situations and the first step towards ownership of the situation is to take responsibility for our own feelings in it. The next time you feel anger building up inside you, try not to say that “You make me sad.“. Instead, try saying “I get sad when you talk like that.” or even better; “I’m making myself sad when you talk like that.

The rules that we have created for ourselves have at some point been useful to us but when we stop re-evaluating them, we also stop choosing rules and instead let the rules choose for us.

But what should we be doing instead? Should we throw out our old rules on how to act?

No! Don’t throw them out but start challenging them again. Evaluate them continuously and see which rules are still beneficial to you. And use them as guidelines instead of rules. There is always a choice. I can choose to get sad, I can choose to feel violated but I can also choose to ignore. I don’t have to be a victim of the circumstances because I can choose which smurf to bring out, they all belong to me.

I would like to highlight three things that we can always do to improve our possibilities for making conscious choices. These are not advanced methods and they’re not even separated from each other, they overlap quite a lot. But they do allow us to become and act as thinking creatures, capable of complex responses that match the situations we are faced with.

The first thing that often stands in our way of making a conscious choice is that we don’t take the time to consider our options.

Your kids walk up to you five minutes before dinnertime asking for ice cream.
NO!!!

You shot the answer at them in a fraction of a second as if this was a duel of life and death between you and the kid. But we don’t owe it to anyone to answer that quickly. We’re allowed to ask for time to think.

Wait a minute while I think about it.

What would happen if I let the kid have an ice cream before dinner today?
Would he get cavities? – Probably not.
Would I always have to let him have an ice cream before dinner?  -No.
Or could I let him have an ice cream just to make him happy today?
If I only take a couple of seconds to consider my options, I might realize that it could be okay for me to bring out Nice-Daddy-Smurf and let him have an ice cream today.

The second thing that has a tendency to get in the way between us and our possibilities to choose which Smurf to bring out is that we don’t listen to the person we’re interacting with. We think we recognize the situation the person is talking about quite fast and then we put it into our own context and spend the rest of the time trying to come up with a good reply for when it becomes our turn to speak. If instead, we could focus on the here and now and really listen to the person and validate that we’ve heard what she has to say, then we’d realize that the situation probably isn’t what we first thought. Once we see the complexity of the situation we are able to meet it with an equally complex response that works in the right direction, instead of just conveying our simple opinion on something we thought we had heard.

The third point I would like to suggest is to reframe the situations we face. If we can change our perspective, we will also be able find new ways to act and respond. Try to find new ways to describe what you experience and use positive or neutral terms to depict situations or actions. If your instinctive reaction to someone is that the person is irritable, see what happens to your feelings if you call the behaviour passionate instead. If someone seems fearful, try and see if your feelings change if you call him careful instead.

Assume the most generous interpretation of the world around you and you’ll definitely change your view on a lot of things. You will also learn to know a much larger portion of your inner smurf village.

Charlie Seashore – Master of reframing

This post is based on a lightning talk I recently gave (and messed up somewhat) and is heavily inspired and influenced by some awesome people that I’d like to recommend for further reading on the subject.

Beverly Patwell and Edie Seashore – Triple Impact Coaching
Barry Oshry – Seeing Systems: Unlocking the mysteries of organizational life
Virginia Satir – Your Many Faces

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