How to Recover From the Work Day
Have you ever had one of those kinds of days—the kind of day that hangs on you like a dirty, wet sock that you just can’t pry off?
Maybe you woke up late, one of the kids is sick, the freeway is full of cars, and the first person you see when you arrive at the clinic tells you to “fasten your seatbelt—today’s gonna be a rough ride!” I imagine we’ve all had our own versions of days like this; the ones that seem to begin a bit (or a lot) “off” and then continue into an apparently never-ending series of mishaps.
Believe it or not, days like this can be great teachers, gifts even, if we allow them to be.
Let me explain…
Several years ago, I was venting to a friend about the “terrible drivers, rude store clerks” and the myriad others who had clearly plotted against me to create one of those kinds of days. After patiently listening to me, my friend calmly stated “You know, Jen…it’s been my experience that when I have one negative encounter or event in a day, it may just be an outlier to an otherwise great day. However, when EVERYONE or EVERY event I encounter in a given day is negative, then it’s time to look in the mirror and identify the common denominator—ME.” My first reaction when I heard this was “Ouch! That’s not exactly the empathetic response I was looking for.” But, in the next few moments, I realized she had a point.
Let’s face it. Some days don’t go according to plan. The indisputable fact is that there are people, places, and events in our lives we cannot control. Yet even on the most difficult of days, we can recognize that in all probability, the universe isn’t actually conspiring against us to make our day so challenging.
Even better yet? No matter what the circumstances, we have the power to shake off the day and regain a positive mindset. How? A good starting point is to examine the role your thoughts play in how you perceive and manage stress.
Also known as stinkin’ thinkin’, cognitive distortions are inaccurate thoughts that are generally negative in nature. These negative thoughts contribute to negative feelings including stress, depression and anxiety. By learning how to recognize our habitual negative thinking patterns, we gain the power to refute them and replace them with more effective thoughts and beliefs.
Three common cognitive distortions are as follows:
1. Catastrophizing—also known as magnification and minimization, catastrophizing is a pattern of thinking that presumes only the worst of outcomes is possible. We can often detect this type of thinking in “what if” questions. “What if I fail?” “What if I embarrass myself?” “What if no one likes me?”
When I catch myself catastrophizing, I turn my thinking pattern into a game by telling myself that for every “what if” question I assume the worst outcome for, I have to create an opposite “what if” question. For example, I transform “What if I fail?” into “What if I succeed?” I then ask myself, “How would I behave if I believed I would succeed?” By choosing to think that a positive outcome is every bit as possible as a negative outcome, I am more likely to engage in behaviors that contribute to desired results. In the process, I feel less stressed and more optimistic.
2. Black or White Thinking—seeing everything as all good or all bad, leaves no room for a middle ground. When perfection is the only acceptable goal, it sets us up to feel defeated rather than curious or capable. Let’s say you apply for a promotion and another candidate is selected for the position. Based on this disappointing outcome, a negative dialogue begins in your head that might sound something like this: “I’ll never be promoted.” “No one likes me.” “Why bother trying? Things never go my way.”
Sound familiar? The great news is that you can have a dialogue with that gloom and doom recording in your head. You can remind yourself that black or white thinking is merely one way to interpret an undesirable result. It is certainly not the only way. Look in the mirror and tell yourself that although you could not control the outcome of the interview, it is within your power to choose to see the disappointment as a learning opportunity. You can ask for feedback and find out what additional skill sets you can acquire to increase your chances for a promotion. You can also recognize that even when someone has more skills or experience than you, or when life isn’t “fair”, it isn’t a sign of your worth as a person, or a predictor of all future outcomes. It’s an outcome. Use the experience to grow your capacities—not as an excuse to offer the world less than your best effort. Disappointment happens. Try again anyway.
3. Shoulds—“I should lose weight.” “She should be more responsible.” “He shouldn’t be so demanding.” Shoulds, oughts, and musts suggest that there are iron-clad rules that we are required to follow. Paradoxically, these attempts to force ourselves or others into certain patterns of behavior tend to produce more resentment, apathy, shame and guilt—not exactly the most effective motivational tools. Shoulding yourself contributes to the mistaken belief that you are not in control of your own decisions and choices, or that you need to punish yourself into submission.
The reality is, you can choose to engage in behaviors that move you closer to your goals. Or you can choose to engage in behaviors that move you further away from your goals. Every day you can choose to accept the person you are right here and right now from a place of love and compassion, AND set goals for how you choose to evolve as a person going forward. My daily motto? “Thou shalt not should on thyself today!” When we choose our actions rather than shaming ourselves into a different set of behaviors, we create greater personal buy-in and accountability toward achieving our goals. An added benefit is that we generally derive more satisfaction from doing what we choose to do, versus what we, or others, perceive we have to do.
Admittedly, this simple concept—transforming our emotions by modifying our thinking patterns—is not always easy to apply. If it seems easier to hold on to negative events or assume the worst, it’s because those are the skills we practiced the most. I’ll be the first to admit that there are certainly days I have to make an extra effort to challenge my own internal Negative Nellie when she tries to push herself to the forefront of my brain. On these days, I remind myself that developing the skills to shake off OR hold on to a difficult day requires the same level of energy, and just like any skill, we gain mastery of the skill sets we apply effectively the most.