If you’re feeling like your life is spinning out of control, it’s time to take charge. But not in the way you think. In fact, before you actually make any changes, you need to begin with being brutally honest with yourself. I don’t mean paying attention to all of the lies you tell yourself about your self-worth or your limitations. Instead, you have to know what you’re feeling, without spinning out of control in a panic. Trust me – this will feel worse before it gets better. But in the end, you’ll gain the critical skill of self-awareness that will ultimately change everything in your entire approach to life.
Being self-aware basically means knowing what you’re feeling. Sounds simple, right? It’s anything but. People can practice this for years before feeling like they’ve mastered self-awareness. Part of the reason it takes so long is because we don’t know how to actually describe what we’re feeling. The other reason self-awareness is so difficult is that we start obsessing over what we should or should not be feeling, all with a heaping layer of guilt and shame mixed in. In fact, we’re so convinced that this is the right way that we actually feel like we’re being irresponsible if we’re not disappointed in ourselves.
This approach basically sucks. Guilt and shame look like good motivators, but have you ever noticed that they rarely ever help you make permanent, genuine change? In fact, all they do is act like velcro and stick to you, so that even if you do change, you still feel bad.
There’s a better approach. Take stock of what you are feeling several times throughout the day without judgment. It’s critical to do this without judgment. If you notice feeling sad or irritated, there’s a temptation to roll your eyes and yell out, “What’s wrong with me?!” But this means you haven’t really noticed anything meaningful at all. In fact, you’ve completely ignored what your emotions are trying to tell you.
The trick in doing this correctly is to replace your self-judgment with what I like to call, “The Wildlife Observer Effect”.
Do Not Fight the Lion
Imagine a wildlife observer sitting down in a field, taking notes in his journal. He’s intent on learning more about the animal kingdom. After sitting still for a few hours, he notices a small squirrel innocently wandering around, looking for nuts. Without warning, a lion suddenly pounces out of the bushes in an attempt to eat the squirrel.
With a rush of adrenaline, The Poor Wildlife Observer immediately reacts. In a flash, he jumps up and tosses his clipboard and papers in the air as he rushes towards the lion in a panic. He waves frantically and yells at the top of his voice: “Bad lion! Shoo! Shoo! Go away!” He’s desperately trying to save the poor innocent squirrel. Startled by all of the commotion, the lion hesitates, and reluctantly backs off. The Poor Wildlife Observer picks up the little squirrel, cradles it in his arms and gives it a gentle caress as if to say that everything is going to be all right.
This is not the right approach to self awareness.
Compare this with the behavior of The Good Wildlife Observer. He notices the squirrel and sees the lion pounce. However with this encounter, he does not react to what he sees. Instead, he allows the entire interaction to take place. Undeterred by the protests of the innocent little squirrel, the lion proceeds with his midday snack. The Good Wildlife Observer simply nods, picks up his clipboard, and with slow, deliberate action begins to write: “Lion exhibits squirrel-eating behavior. Interesting,” and shrugs.
The difference between the two wildlife observers is that one reacts, while the other one reflects. When we react to our thoughts and emotions, we don’t really notice what’s truly going on deep inside of ourselves. Reflection allows us to notice, observe and accept what is. You can’t change what you don’t notice, and over time, you’ll be able to choose to act rather than react. Acceptance and curiosity allows us to access a deeper, more complete picture of our emotional landscape.