Are you battling challenges in your business? Is there a situation that is causing you to feel anxious? Well what if I were to remind you that there is one thing that can transform how you feel about any professional or personal trials you may be facing? That there’s one thing that will not only change how you feel but can help you achieve a more positive outcome too? That thing is perception my friend…
What We Can Learn from Epictetus
“People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them.”
Epictetus (AD 55 – AD 135)
Epictetus overcame the hardship of being born a slave to go on to become one of the most respected philosophers of his time, even opening his own philosophical school. Today his teachings continue to inspire people and help individuals prevail in even the most appalling of situations. Those his philosophy on life has touched include James Stockdale, an American fighter pilot during the Vietnam War who was shot down over North Vietnam and became a prisoner of war. In Stockdale’s book Courage under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behaviour (1993), he credits Epictetus with helping him endure seven and a half years in a North Vietnamese military prison and four years in solitary confinement where he was routinely tortured. So the young boy who was born into poverty in Phrygia (which is modern day Turkey) some 19 centuries ago had discovered a fundamental tool for human happiness & survival which we can all learn from; the power of perception.
What Story Are You Creating?
We create our experience of life all day every day. Believe it or not, this is also true in regards to the bad things that happen to us too. When we are facing difficulties it may feel like we are out of our control but in fact we do actually have power over and can dictate whether what we undergo feels bad, extremely bad, or actually…OK. In further words of wisdom from Epictetus, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” Therefore even when it feels like we are very much out of control, what we experience and the impact it has upon us is in our hands. I think this is a comforting concept to get our heads around and one we should all practice applying to our lives.
I encourage my clients to see that we are the Director of the movie which makes up our life. In the Director’s chair we control the picture we produce, including the emotions & meanings we generate around what has happened to us in the past (for e.g. “I was never bright at school”), what is happening to us now (for e.g. “I haven’t got what it takes to overcome this”) and how we anticipate the future may look. By coming to rigid conclusions about ourselves, our lives or a situation we find ourselves in, we feed our anxieties and can proactively build what was a minor setback into shark infested waters!
Let’s explore this for a moment. Can you recall something that you worried about for ages only to find that things weren’t as bad as you had predicted? Do you see how the story you created wasn’t a helpful reflection on reality but just a version of events tainted by your fears? Equally to look at it from another angle, bring to mind the last time you found yourself in a situation which was making you feel extremely stressed. How were you viewing this situation? What story were you creating and how did this impact the outcome that followed? Did the view you took of the situation help or hinder you with finding a solution?
You are on your way to an important meeting with a potential new client. Traffic is unexpectedly bad so you are running at least 10 minutes late. As in most stressful situations like this, it is also raining!
“OMG, I am so late, they are going to think I am really unprofessional, I am useless, I’m such an idiot, I’m going to look stupid when I walk in late and they are all there, what if my ideas aren’t any good, I don’t know why I bothered to arrange this meeting, I am never going to be successful.”
“OK so I’m going to be late, not ideal but there’s not much I can do about the traffic, I have some great ideas and will walk in there with my head held high, everyone has been late for a meeting at some time so I will make my apologies and then carry on, my professionalism and enthusiasm for this project will shine thorough, I’ll use this time to practice my pitch.”
- What outlook would help you most in this situation?
- What outlook would help you enter the meeting (when you finally get there) with the best frame of mind and deliver the best possible pitch?
- Which outlook has the potential to make things much worse?
So in the middle of even the most stressful and challenging situations, there is a moment where we can choose whether to make the situation better or worse for ourselves by deciding which outlook we wish to take.
Don’t Believe Everything You Think & Feel
On the most part we don’t stop to question our thoughts & feelings but instead assume that by the mere fact that we’re thinking or feeling a certain way means that it must be true. For instance, if we think we can’t cope then it must mean we can’t cope. If we think we are not good enough then it must mean that we are not good enough. Similarly if we feel we are not liked then it must mean we’re not liked. If we feel we are not worthy then it must mean we are not worthy.
I’d like to encourage you to not believe everything you think and feel. As our minds try to make sense of a situation that makes us feel anxious, the thoughts that arise are fuelled by our fears and insecurities. These kind of thoughts are known in Psychology as deceptive brain messages and the key word here is deceptive, just because we are having negative thoughts doesn’t mean that these thoughts are accurate. Thoughts are just thoughts, or ideas, or notions that we conjure in our minds and depending on how we view and feel about a certain situation will determine whether these ‘notions’ have a neutral, positive or negative effect upon us.
Exercise: Create the best experience possible for the best outcome possible
Think about a situation that is making you feel uncomfortable in some way. Let’s see what experience you are currently creating:
- What thoughts fill your mind about this situation?
- What conclusions are you making about this situation?
- How are you predicting things will go?
- Are your thoughts & feelings (biased by your fears) making this situation appear more threatening?
Take another look…
- How can you view this situation so that you can feel better about it?
- How could this situation actually benefit you in some way?
- What outlook on this situation will help you create the best outcome possible?
- What action can you take to create the best outcome possible?
Look for and you shall find…
We’ve all heard the famous saying, ‘Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.’ Well viewing a situation that you find challenging in the same way and expecting to get a better outcome will also drive you crazy! Reclaim control over your outlook, thoughts and feelings and you gain control over your health, happiness & success too. This is a fundamental tool in human happiness & survival that Epictetus gave you and it is one to be honed. No matter what difficult situation you find yourself in, nobody can take away your ability to choose your experience through choosing an empowering perception.