Racing the Negatives

Every time an unexpected problem, hardship or dilemma arrives, a race begins. The starting gun fires, and you’re now in a race against your own negative reaction.

All the bad emotions, the panic response, the anger, the fear – they all coalesce into an entity that takes off like a shot. The finish line is the machine that controls your actions, and that entity is trying to get there before you do.

That entity is fast.

People lose this race all the time. On the outside, other people see you reacting poorly, lashing out, yelling, or making foolish decisions. Then, usually a few hours to a few days later, you “catch up” to the finish line and take over the controls, but you often then have to do a lot of damage control. Apologies abound, sheepish admissions of overreacting, etc. It’s not the absolute end of the world, but it’s not great. And if you lose that race a lot, you’ll find your credibility – both professionally and personally – eroding along with your social capital.

So how do you win the race? Here are three strategies:

  1. Train to be faster. Getting better at getting to the “controls” faster is often a matter of “planning your route.” It means deciding what you would want your reactions to be in a stressful situation, and making them the default. Practice them even if there’s no emergency so you know how to do it when there is. If you want your reaction to be to write in a stress journal instead of yelling at people, then write in that journal on a regular basis, especially when you have very small stresses, so that you know the way. That’s the equivalent of an athlete training to sprint faster.
  2. Hamstring your opponent. Not very ethical in a real race, but this is an opponent you can feel good about disrupting. What feeds the Negative Entity? Loud noises? Alcohol? Social media? Take those things away. Make a list of things that empower the Negative Entity and make sure that when the emergency arises you block access to them. If a certain person in your life always fans the flames of stress and panic, don’t talk to that person in an emergency. Don’t give the Negative Entity the best running shoes. Instead, trip them.
  3. Start the race early. Like I said, no sportsmanship necessary here – if you can leave before the starting gun, you have a better chance of arriving at the finish line early, too. That means giving some thought to the kinds of emergencies that might happen and mentally preparing for them. If you’re starting your own business, it might fail. Give that some thought and decide in advance how you’d like to feel. Recognize that the Negative Entity will try to make you react poorly, but the Negative Entity is nothing if not predictable. If you say “If my business fails, I’ll feel angry. That anger will make me want to blame my spouse, but that won’t be correct. So I’ll recognize that and immediately go to my very calm friend’s house and let them talk me down for a while, eat dinner, then come home and hug my spouse for supporting me.” If the business does go under, you’ve got a reaction already pre-planned. You’re already at the finish line.

These aren’t perfect or flawless strategies. The Negative Entity is predictable, but it’s also strong and fast. Sometimes it gets the better of you. But the more races against it you can win, the better your life will be overall, so it’s absolutely worth trying.

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