When life gets overwhelming, it often feels like there's nothing we can do. Before we can even tackle the problems we face, putting things in perspective can help. Skills based on learned optimism—such as challenging beliefs, avoiding thinking traps, calming and focusing, and putting things in perspective—can improve psychological resiliency. But anyone who has tried to step back, think about the big picture, and gain a sense of perspective knows that it’s easier said than done.
The way we view difficulties in our lives is habitual, and usually deeply ingrained. Training ourselves to be more flexible in our thinking is hard, but not impossible. So how can we practice cognitive flexibility and begin to put things in perspective? Here are a few tips.
When we’re too close to a situation, it's difficult to put things in perspective. But we can't always wait for time to pass in order to gain a sense of perspective. The good news is, sometimes we can create that sense of time passing with our own minds.
In order to “help” us gain perspective, people often say, “Think about how you will feel about this next year. Will you still be so stressed?” This is the gist of it, but unfortunately, it oversimplifies the situation (and often invalidates our feelings). We can't just wave a magic wand, picture ourselves in the future, and suddenly gain a sense of perspective, especially when we’re scared, angry, sad, or frustrated.
When you're trying to gain a sense of perspective by imagining yourself in the future, make sure that you're in the right headspace to do so. Try to let yourself calm down, get yourself in a safe or more comfortable situation, and be kind to yourself as emotions come up. We always want to validate our feelings now and then just explore. Without any judgment, how do you think you'll feel in a week, or a month, or a year about the situation you're facing right now?
You might think in a day or a week that you'll still be stressed, and that's okay. But as you picture yourself in the future, maybe you'll realize that a month from now, or three months from now, or six months from now, the sting of whatever is going on will have faded and you'll be able to find some peace or closure. Are there actions you can take now to get you closer to that state?
Very often we treat our inner monologue as fact. If, for example, we send a stressful work email and don't get a response, we often catastrophize and assume the worst. Maybe the email recipient is mad at us. Maybe we'll be taken off the project or even worse, fired! But these worst-case scenarios are rarely how it plays out in real life.
Instead of catastrophizing, think about other possible outcomes. Maybe the email recipient is busy. Maybe they're confused and don't know how to respond. Maybe they're home sick today and haven't even gotten the email.
It can also help to think how someone who isn't as stressed might handle the situation. This can be a real person, such as a friend or family member who you think handles stressful situations very well. It can even be someone you make up in your head. If this real or imaginary person were in your situation what do you think they would do? How do you think they would react? If they did get stressed, how do you say they would handle it?
Grounding ourselves in these potential alternate points of view can help us step away from catastrophizing and consider different perspectives.
Very often, our own self talk is what sends our brains into overdrive. Still, we want to validate our emotions and honor what we're feeling.
If you're stressed, or angry, or sad, that's totally valid. But after you name your emotion, and feel your feelings, how can you reframe what you're feeling or what's going on to gain some perspective and maybe even put a positive spin on things?
For example, if you're stressed about a big presentation or difficult conversation, instead of just thinking things like I'm totally going to bomb this presentation or I'm dreading this conversation, after you let yourself feel that, reframe it.
Maybe you'll think, This is a really big presentation that I’m very stressed about. I do know that I spent a lot of time working on it and I'm glad that I'm so prepared. Or, I have a really difficult conversation coming up that I’ve been feeling angry about. I'm going to practice some preventive self-care, make sure I'm prepared to have this conversation, and commit to hearing the other person out before we co-create a solution.
If you don't instantly need to respond to something, ask yourself can I wait before I need to take action or respond to whatever is going on? If whatever is occurring is causing feelings of anger, sadness, frustration, or anything else that could be perceived as negative, can you give yourself some space and time to cool down and process before anything else happens?
When we're in crisis mode, it often feels like we need to respond immediately. But even one minute to take some deep breaths can make a huge difference in terms of gaining perspective and a difficult situation.
One great way to put something in perspective is to talk about it, and who better to talk to about what's going on with you than a therapist?
A therapist can help you explore solutions, develop ways to cope, consider other things that are going well in your life, work on existing skills or help you develop new skills to get you through tough times, and analyze what might be able to change in your life versus what might be more fixed.
None of these exercises are easy, but gaining perspective is like a muscle, and the more often you use it, the stronger it will grow.
Caitlin is an organizational change strategist, advisor, writer, and the founder of Commcoterie, a change management communication consultancy. She helps leaders and the consultants who work with them communicate change for long-lasting impact. Caitlin is a frequent speaker, workshop facilitator, panelist, and podcast guest on topics such as organizational change, internal communication strategy, DEIBA, leadership and learning, management and coaching, women in the workplace, mental health and wellness at work, and company culture. Find out more, including how to work with her, at www.commcoterie.com.
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