One morning about two months ago, I woke up earlier than usual. Pleased to have some “extra” time, I poured a cup of strong black coffee (lately one of my favorite rituals) and sat down to read my new messages. This is what I found, verbatim:
“My working hours are unbearable. Also @home is so difficult – I feel completely burned out. Bleeding.”
“I need to take something to calm down. It’s been so difficult for me. You can’t imagine how horrible this day was.”
“It’s so hard. My feelings oscillate from one minute to another. Can we talk for a second?”
When I sense things are potentially going south for someone, I’m naturally driven to do what I can to restore their motivation. So I replied to all three; we texted, we talked. Each person felt they were facing the end of their world. Although it would have been easy to join in a long session of problem chewing, I resisted because I’ve found focusing on negatives to be of very limited value. Of course, there are times when truly bad things happen, and it’s useful to look closely at why. But in these three cases, from my more objective point of view, the problem seemed to be mainly one of perspective, of focusing narrowly on annoying details while forgetting that the overall picture was actually pretty good.
Now my attempts to persuade an upset person to consider another perspective are usually met with something like “That big picture crap doesn’t work.” I’ve always wanted to say “Really? Would the problem you’re facing right now look the same if you’d awakened this morning to find your toilet had backed up during the night and regurgitated sewage all over the master bedroom carpet? I’m fairly sure that would change your perspective.” But with each of my three texters, I took a gentle approach, and when I showed the messages to their authors two months later, you guessed it—they could scarcely remember what those end-of-the-world complaints were about. Clearly, their big pictures had remained intact.
I’ve found that one great way to zoom-out my perspective is to remind myself of things I already have in life, things I take for granted when I start whining about problems. I tell myself: “Before you decide that everything is terrible, check your pulse.” Because I’m a scientist, that pulse tells me a lot about how things are really going. I know that with every beat, 2 to 3 billion heart muscle cells are synchronizing as they are designed to do. About 70 times each minute—or an astonishing 100,000 times per day—the heart pumps blood through the body, delivering oxygen and nutrients, and carrying away waste. At about 70 milliliters per beat, that’s more than 10,000 liters per day—enough to fill a small tanker truck! And what’s even more amazing is the fact that unlike the other cells of the body, heart muscle cells don’t divide, renew, or replace themselves. They work nonstop, around the clock, for a lifetime.
So when you’re overwhelmed by the amount of work, problems, and pressure you’re required to handle, try remembering the marvel of your heart. Better yet, identify your own “instant zoom-out” thought that helps you refocus on the all the positives you can see clearly from broader perspective. I mean, how many problems have you already solved in your life? You’re going to be able to deal with this one, too.
P.S. Ironically, just as I finished writing this post, a computer error occurred and all my text disappeared—irreversibly. I stomped around, complaining about how unfair life is, until a friend said, “Wow, I’m sorry that happened. What was your post about?”
“Uh . . . hmm. How funny.”