Dealing With Stressful People - The Movie Version
How do you handle the difficult co-worker who always makes your blood boil? Or that relative who knows just which of your buttons to push at the family gathering? How do you get to the other side of any stressful situation without getting swallowed up by the stress? If you know how to watch a movie, then you already have the mental focusing skills to bulletproof yourself from stress. Here’s how.
Years ago, I had a difficult boss. You’ve probably had one too. I would dread the phone call asking if I could drop everything and come to his office right now. I would feel my stress levels palpably rise as he launched into his passive-aggressive dance which always ended with more work in my inbox. I would feel the knot in my stomach tighten as he began to yell - typically as a cover for his having dropped the ball.
Eventually, I found a new job with a better boss. Ultimately, I became my own boss. But in the meantime, I needed to figure out how to cope with a difficult situation. I didn’t like the ever-present feeling of stress that my boss and my job seemingly created.
I say “seemingly” because in reality, stress is an inside job. You’ve probably noticed that two people can experience the same event, and one will get stressed out while the other shrugs it off. Yes, an external event can be a stress trigger, and some triggers are much more difficult to ignore than others. But ultimately, as much as it doesn’t feel that way when you are in the middle of it, your stress is not caused by an external force but by how you choose to react (or not) to the external force.
In other words, how you focus on an event will determine how you react and whether or not you become internally stressed. And if your stress level is determined by your focus, then you can change your stress reaction by changing your focus.
And that’s exactly what I did with my difficult boss.
Watching the Movie Play Out in Front of You
One practice at the foundation of my work is the space-based exercises I learned from Dr. Les Fehmi when I studied with him. Rooted in neuroscience, and specifically the study of alpha brainwaves (which broadly speaking, equate with a state of flow – a very non-stressed state), I’ve applied Dr. Fehmi’s basic method to a much wider range of contexts. One of them is dealing with what you believe to be the stress-inducing person or situation in front of you.
Typically, tension involves contraction while relaxation involves expansion. Tighten your hand into a fist or tense up any muscle. Besides feeling unpleasant if you try to hold it for more than a few seconds, you’ll notice that the tension/stress is closely related to your muscles contracting. To relax them means to release the contraction.
Any time you can create a sense of space, a sense of expansion – whether in your body or in how you focus on your thoughts or the events around you – you will go a long way toward creating a sense of relaxation from which you can operate far more effectively.
It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the myriad ways you can apply this concept of space to any number of life situations and problems in need of solutions. For now, I’m going to teach you one specific way you can apply this idea to the difficult boss, or any other difficult person or situation in your life.
As the difficult person stands in front of you, voice rising, arms flailing, accusations flying, your default will be to get sucked into this person’s (negative) energy. You’ll start to feel stressed as more and more of your buttons get pushed. That is, unless you consciously create space between you and that person’s energy.
And a great way to do this is to pretend you are watching a movie. Yes, literally act as if there is you, there is the space in front of you, and then the person whose arms are flailing is on a screen that you are simply watching on the other side of that space.
Literally get into the headspace of watching a movie. The person in front of you is a character. As much as you can, simply become the observer. Just watch the person – as if from a distance. You are not the unwilling object of this person’s idiosyncrasies. You are the observer.
You don’t need to go as far as bringing your own popcorn. You just need to watch the scene play out in front of you. Keep telling yourself that you are watching and observing the activity on the other side of the space between you and the person.
Of course, it’s not exactly like a movie in that you will still need to respond and participate. And you still may wind up with more work in your inbox. However, to the extent you can mentally play the role of observer, you will be in control of your own energy rather than getting pulled into the energy of a difficult person. Which means it will be far easier to regulate your internal state and stay relaxed rather than becoming stressed by reacting to what is outside of you.
Staying with the movie version of the difficult person also means that the sense of control you gain over your internal state will enable you to more effectively respond, come up with better solutions, or wrap up the conversation earlier, as appropriate. This in turn will more likely give you greater control over the external situation than if you had simply reacted and become stressed.
If you find it challenging to negotiate the line between being a mere observer and needing to actively respond to what is in front of you as the situation requires, you can pretend that you too are an actor in the movie. The difficult person has his lines and you have yours. But it’s still a movie. You’re still creating space between what’s going on in front of you and your internal reaction.
Go ahead. The next time you find yourself dreading the work meeting, the family reunion or the appointment with the government bureaucrat, spend a day at the movies instead.