Anyone reading this, patient, friend, or colleague, you may have heard me use the equation:
Outside Events + My Response = The Outcome.
I would love to take credit for this amazing equation, but I can’t. The man who writes the Chicken Soup for the Soul books, Jack Canfield, offered this life equation to Katie Couric well over 10 years ago on the Today Show. I happened to be watching that morning when he was talking about a book he had written, and the only thing I remember from the entire interview is the above equation. I’ve used it with patients, friends, and even myself.
So, let’s break this equation down just a bit. What exactly is an outside event? I interpret an outside event to be anything that we have no control over. For example, the school bus is late picking up your kids for school; a relationship ends unexpectedly; your favorite doctor retires. These are all outside events that none of us have any control over. When unexpected things come up on our lives, it can create a snag with our previously-scheduled plans. This can naturally create some frustration, anxiety, maybe even anger.
The next part of the equation, the + my response part, is really a moment of empowerment for anyone who lives in an uncertain world – which is all of us. Our responses to any of the above situations, or the vast number of other uncertainties that come up in any given day, can take a toll on our mental and emotional well being, and sometimes even our physical well being. So many of us have an overloaded to-do list and any glitch can have a pretty big impact. So when the unexpected does come up (and it will), the way we respond to the situation can actually change the outcome for the better or for the worse.
For example, let’s say that, for whatever reason, our child misses the school bus. An automatic response for some of us might be anger or frustration of some kind. True, something like this could throw the whole morning off with reconfiguring how to get the child to school on time and yourself to work on time. The reality of it is, someone might actually be late; possibly even both the child and the parent. This may not be good news, but it’s real and it does happen. If you find yourself getting angry or frustrated, see if you can catch yourself beginning to feel that way. In the field of behavioral health, one of the many things we work with each day is the idea that thoughts and feelings do happen – but it’s what you DO with them that really counts. This part of the equation is the part that invites us to a new way of managing our thoughts and feelings, and getting a more positive outcome. Becoming aware that the anger or frustration is brewing can offer you the opportunity to replace it with, for example, a deep breath, sitting down at the kitchen table, and even making a list of options, if necessary. Yes, this may take some practice and maybe even some setbacks, but it really can work. The trick is to catch yourself falling into the same habit that lead to the day falling apart all together, the bad mood that lingered from morning’s breakfast clear through putting the kids to bed at night. Catching yourself sliding into the thought habit you want to break (anger, for example), means you have an opportunity to get creative with your new response. You still have to get your child to school and yourself to work, but let’s face it – we all have the choice of being angry and blameful or taking a deep breath, thinking through the realistic options to get the tasks done, and moving forward with a pleasant attitude vs. a negative attitude.
That’s where the = the outcome part comes into play. A pleasant attitude, a problem-solving manner, rather than the opposite, can change the rest of the day for you. Your child will still get to school and you will still get to work. Yes, you both might be a few minutes late, and certainly no one wants to make a habit of that. But accidents happen and people make mistakes. So, with that pleasant attitude you’ve opted for, rather than angry attitude, get in the car, drive to the school, make your apologies to the school and then get to work. You might need to apologize to your supervisor, as well, for running late. True, the day didn’t start out that well, but the whole day is still ahead of you. You get to choose what your attitude is going to be with all of it.
I’m not saying this is easy, but with practice, it can and will make a difference for you. Changes, challenges, glitches – all sorts of unexpected things come up for most of us each day. What this equation reminds us all is that we have a choice as to how we respond to whatever comes our way. I have seen this life equation work in many different situations for many different people. I encourage you to give it a try. As always, I invite you to respond to this blog and let me and the other readers know what you think of this idea. I would appreciate your feedback and, if you give this idea a try, let me know how it worked for you.