A few weeks ago my wife Eleanor and I escaped for a few hours to go mountain biking in Panthertown Valley, North Carolina. Several times during our ride we stopped to admire the incredible views and warm our faces in the sun. The perfect day, we thought.
As we coasted down the last few feet to the parking lot, we had to squeeze through the space between a tree and a short but wide metal post. Eleanor made her way first, leaned on the post for balance, and then glided down toward the car. My turn. I reached out for the post and paused, watching Eleanor.
Suddenly I felt stabbing pain everywhere. Little blades piercing my body. All over my arms and legs, on my back, through my clothing. It was a second or two before I heard the buzzing, felt the brushing, and realized what was happening. By then it was too late. Hornets. A swarm of them. The post I was holding was hollow and inside was their nest. Eleanor must have rustled them up when she passed.
I sprang off my bike and ran, flailing, thrashing about, slapping myself until it seemed like the hornets had gone. I was covered in stings, about a dozen of them.
Then, the dreaded question: was I allergic? I hadn’t been stung since I was a boy, when I had a mild reaction. What would it be like now, especially with so many stings? Would my throat swell up? Would I stop breathing?
The nearest pharmacy was 15 minutes away. The nearest hospital 25. We threw the bikes on the car and drove off. The stings were red and swelling. I sensed a lump in my throat. It was hard to take a deep breath. Was my fear getting the better of me? Or was I going into anaphylactic shock? Eleanor drove faster.
The mind is an amazing tool. We can use it to think through complex problems and intuit subtle emotions. We can dream up dazzling ideas and make them happen.
But occasionally our minds take over. We imagine the worst, feeding our fear with fantasies and, sometimes, creating a future that fulfills our nightmares.
A friend of mine, a senior leader named Charles, was convinced he was being driven out of his company.* When he wasn’t invited to a meeting, was left off an email list, or was told his work could be improved, he saw it as proof of a plot to discredit him.
Charles spoke with his boss, the CEO, but she didn’t see it. You’re doing a good job, she told him, I value and respect you. But it didn’t help.
When he was left out of another meeting, one to which his boss was invited, he took it as evidence that she was sidelining him too. Now it was clear to him that everyone — his colleagues, his own direct reports, even his boss — was trying to push him out.
“Your boss doesn’t have to try to push you out,” I reasoned with him. “She’s the CEO. She could just fire you if she wanted to.” Of course, that didn’t help either.
His boss asked him to meet with her, planning to tell him he was achieving his goals and doing well. But Charles vented for 20 minutes about how everything he did got twisted, subverted, and manipulated.
The CEO left the meeting thinking there was no solution except to fire him.
Charles didn’t simply confirm his fears, he manifested them. His mind envisioned a world and then created it. He isn’t paranoid or schizophrenic or crazy. He’s just human.
We do this all the time. We think someone is angry with us, so we respond aggressively to a gesture and they become angry with us. See? We were right all along. We think a customer isn’t going to give us business so we don’t pursue them and they don’t renew our contract. We knew it! Our neglect was justified.
What can we do about it?
As Einstein said, we can’t solve a problem using the same thinking that created it. In this case we can’t solve the problem using any thinking at all. Because thinking is the problem. And sometimes it’s virtually impossible to change our thinking. Better just to stop thinking altogether. But what should we do instead?
Pretend. Act as if.
When the CEO called Charles into her office, he should have listened, thanked her, and, defying everything he thought was happening to him, acted as if he were a valued member of the team. Then, the next time he wasn’t invited to a meeting, he should have asked to be invited, saying he’d like to help with the project at hand.
What should you do with someone you think is angry at you? Ask them about it. If they say they’re not, then act as if they’re telling the truth. Respond generously to anything they do. Pretend you believe they meant well. An unresponsive customer? Keep calling.
Will you be living in a fantasy world? Maybe. But you might already be living in one. Why not choose the fantasy that works for you instead of against you?
The mind is so hard to control that sometimes, when it runs off in rampant fear or anger or frustration, you shouldn’t try. Just accept that it might be playing tricks on you and invent a work-around.
As the hornet stings turned into red blotches and welts, I couldn’t control my fear that I was going into shock. The harder I tried, the worse I made it. As soon as we got to the pharmacy, I popped two Benadryl capsules and bought a portable Epinephrin shot. I didn’t need to use it. But my mind relaxed and my breathing improved simply knowing I had it.
*I’ve changed a couple of details in this story to protect people’s identities.