When things are not going my way, I’m prone to blaming it on them (the proverbial “them”) . Whether it’s being late for work in the morning, the late payment on my Visa bill or not getting a promotion. Especially when it involves a change I didn’t ask for or doesn’t appear to be in my favor, I’d rather put the blame anywhere other than me. Thankfully, I learned a technique that has its roots in cognitive behavioral therapy that helps me cope when I am looking for a way to turn a bad situation into a better one. It’s a simple way of working through a situation in a structured way as you see it now and then turning it around by reversing the process. I call it vicious and vital cycles. According to CBT, everything starts with a thought. From thoughts flow feelings. Those feelings prompt our actions that, in turn, produce the results we achieve. Generally, negative thoughts produce negative outcomes. For example, when someone cuts me off in traffic on the way to work, my thought is likely “@#*!” The feeling is probably going to be negative and you can see where this is going…. Now, if I choose to, I can turn the situation around. I could anticipate bad things happening and I could determine the result I want that would drive a behavior or habit that would result in more positive thoughts and feelings.
A few years ago I was teaching a class on change management and asked the participants to try a turnaround from the vicious to vital cycle. I asked participants to choose a current situation in their own lives and write out their responses*. One woman had a particularly dramatic change of demeanor during the exercise. During the class she had a somber expression and seemed pretty disengaged. By the end of the exercise she was sitting up straight and her eyes were sparkling. I asked what happened and she described her story. She had a teenage son who was learning to drive. She’d been dreading riding with him and they were getting into fights regularly. As she worked the vicious cycle, she discovered how her fear about his safety was creating tension and driving a wedge between them. When she worked the vital cycle, she got in touch with her desire for him to be a safe driver and that his driving opened up a world of freedom for her. With this new approach, she was able to imagine more productive behaviors for herself, such as reviewing rules of the road before her son got behind the wheel (rather than yelling at him in traffic). The thought of a positive outcome lightened her feelings and helped her be optimistic about the situation.
Try the vicious to vital cycle for yourself – get the worksheet here.
*There is solid evidence that the physical act of writing is a powerful way to stimulate learning – it forces our brain to pay close attention to what we are thinking. If you think about it, it makes total sense – in order to get your hand to write out the words, your mind needs to be engaged, you need to be present.