De-reflection can only be attained to the degree to which
. . . awareness is directed toward positive aspects. [ 1]
Andy is a former executive with a major software company. He used to make more than $130,000 a year and had a terrific benefit package. He also supervised teams of software programmers in several states and had an office overseas. But no more. Like scores of other well-paid, white- collar workers, Andy lost his job in a lay-off and has been unable to find one that offers the same ”or even similar ”responsibilities, status, salary, and benefits. Instead, out of desperation, he has found himself grasping at survival jobs offering considerably less.
Yes, desperate times require desperate measures, says Andy. He continues, This is no time to be picky. Since they laid me off, I ve sold jewelry in a department store and worked as a cashier at a ski slope, both at $8 an hour . Now I sell golf equipment.
Andy, however, is more than a mere survivor in a job market that calls for such desperate measures. Although he is empathetic, Andy doesn t really see himself as grasping at straws like some other displaced white-collar workers. He would say that he s not in the same boat at all. You see, Andy isn t driven by frustration, money worries, shame, or embarrassment. In fact, Andy doesn t feel that he is going backward; instead, he feels that he s going forward. An avid golfer, he s moved on to jobs related to his hobby ”first helping run the pro shop at a local golf course and now selling golf equipment in a mall sports shop. And, in his current job, Andy sees an even more positive side.
It s a lot simpler and less challenging than it used to be, but I ve learned to be humble , he says. I see guys coming on to the golf course wound pretty tight. They re guys who come in and are late for their tee times and they expect me to do something. I enjoy dealing with people who remind me what I used to be like.
Andy has learned a great deal since he was cut from his executive job in late 2001. Among other things, he s been able to see the silver lining in what could have been, for him as it is for so many of his peers, a cloud of despair and a time of inner emptiness. Instead, Andy has shifted his focus to more important matters in his life and has discovered deeper, personal meaning in the process.
Other things being equal, an unemployed person who maintains his morale will have better chances in the competitive struggle than a person who has become apathetic. He will, for example, be more likely to get a job which both apply for. [ 2 ]
There was a voice throughout my childhood that came from inside my head whenever things went wrong. Think about something else, it said. And I would. I remember once, when I was a teenager, getting thrown by my horse during a jumping competition. I was thrown into a water jump and the horse fell on top of me. Submerged in the water, I recall thinking about whether my horse was all right, whether we would still complete the course, and whether I d get my homework assignment completed in time for school on Monday morning. I even remember asking myself questions, such as my name , assuring myself that I was still alive if I could answer them correctly!
As kids , we are naturally resilient; nothing keeps us down for long. Our attention spans are short, our interests many, and our involvement with whatever is happening is complete. Most of us knew instinctively how to think of something else, should someone hurt our feelings, steal our toys, or eat our candy . We might yell and scream for a few moments, but not for long. It wasn t natural to hold on to our thoughts, to become obsessed about wrongdoings. We d simply get on to the next big adventure. There was always something more exciting to think about.
It s when we re grown up that this skill gets shelved. As adults we learn to think things through, which is useful. But when thinking becomes obsession and we dwell repeatedly upon negative things, it s not so useful anymore. Often it s our work, at which we spend such a large part of our lives, that becomes co-workers don t cooperate; lunch is too short; the day is too long; the work is too much; the pay is not enough. Sometimes it seems that work exists simply to complain about. the scapegoat for our obsessive complaining and negativity. Things are unfair; the boss is a jerk; the
We all know complainers. At one time or another, we ve all been one. Sometimes we like them because they do our complaining for us and allow us to vent our frustrations without risk. Other times complainers weigh us down with their misery and we can feel our own moods and energy taking a dive. When we get locked into our own complaining shadow and focus on all the bad stuff, we immediately lose sight of the good stuff. Blaming and complaining get us nowhere, even if we really do have someone to blame or something to complain about. It s time to dust off those old childhood skills, think about something else, and get on with life.
This reminds me of the time I was working in Illinois years ago for the state department of mental health. I was responsible for coordinating social services within a sub-region of the city of Chicago, as well as working with an inpatient psychiatric unit in one of the state s mental health facilities.
This particular facility, along with others in the metropolitan Chicago area, was overcrowded with patients , many of whom were either psychotic or prone to violence, and my unit was suffering from a severe shortage of staff. For these and other reasons, both union and non-union employees complained incessantly about the problems we were facing . Patients, we knew, had a right to treatment in the most humane way possible, and we weren t doing a very good job of providing it. In point of fact, I would say that we were doing a horrible job because we found it almost impossible , under the circumstances, to meet even the most basic standards of care. The facility was so overcrowded with patients that they found themselves sleeping on the floor in the hallways! In short, we weren t even meeting our ethical and moral obligations to care properly for our fellow human beings.
Well, the complaining by staff continued and an increasing number of employees came down with the blue flu, which meant that they called in sick and made an already bad staffing situation worse . Those of us who were in supervisory or management positions staffed the agency as best we could, frequently working multiple eight-hour shifts. Eventually, the complaining and resistance escalated into a full-blown walk-out and strike led by union officials.
I remember my boss Rita, a registered nurse and longtime mental health administrator, saying Good for them! However, the show has to go on, so let s see what we can do without them.
Without them?, I thought. How are we going to do that? We re in a serious predicament with no obvious resolution. Maybe she just doesn t get it.
As I now know, that was not the case with Rita. She knew much more than I gave her credit for. For one thing, she focused on the potentially positive implications of the walk-out ”that we might finally get the resources we had needed for so long. Second, she stressed how much camaraderie was coming into play among those who were left minding the psychiatric unit. We were getting to know each other better and, to be sure, relied on each other more than ever. To Rita, our situation reminded her of her medical MASH-type unit in Vietnam. She had survived that situation and she was damn sure that she would do the same this time around. Rita saw in the patients themselves (some of them anyway) the capacity to help us out in our time of need. As it turned out, we did find support among the patient ranks and it bonded us in ways that traditional modes of therapy could never do.
By shifting our focus to positive experiences, we were able to find meaning potential in our predicament. Thanks to Rita s guidance and capacity to de-reflect, as Frankl would say, we were not subdued by our circumstances no matter how dire they appeared to be. Thanks, Rita.
Two things happen when we think good thoughts on the job: we feel better at work and we are better at work. If we use creative distraction when we are upset and frustrated, we open ourselves to constructive action. We see ourselves more fully, more generously; we get out from under our own shadow.
When we are in a miserable job situation, our choices are to either quit or find meaning in what we are doing. Remember, unless you have an armed Nazi guard dictating your every move, you ultimately still have the freedom to choose whether to leave or stay in your job. This said, finding meaning sometimes means distracting ourselves from what we don t like. Even when we do love our jobs, we all experience bad, even ugly, days.
When we are stressed at work, we can always conjure someplace else: a favorite place, a favorite activity, sometimes even a favorite smell. One person I know decorates her office with mementos from trips that she has taken around the world. When work gets stressful, she focuses her attention on one of her favorite vacation spots and, in Star Trek fashion, transports herself to it until she feels relaxed . Another person imagines himself going sailing, often using aromatherapy and music to help get him into the spirit of the moment. Whatever works; it could be anything. It s your imagination .
Italian film producer and actor Roberto Benigni is known for using his imagination in ways that allow his audiences to go on mental excursions without really going anywhere . In his internationally acclaimed and Academy Award-winning movie Life is Beautiful, Benigni shares his sentimental tale about a man trying to shield his son from the horrors of the Holocaust. While the movie has been criticized by those who feel that it unrealistically and inappropriately makes light and pokes fun at something that was so horrific, Benigni s comedy was based on the ungainly premise of his father s two-year ordeal in a Nazi labor camp, and therefore is grounded in reality.
The film is the story of Guido, a Jewish waiter who, while imprisoned in a camp, creates and plays an imaginative game (you ll have to see the movie to get the rules of this game) with his young son to avoid breaking up and giving up. Unwilling to see his son killed at the hands of the Nazis or demoralized by the horror of their situation, Guido ( played by Benigni himself) keeps up his rapid-fire humor and light-hearted, positive outlook in the face of it all.
It has been said, Don t sweat the small stuff. And it s all small stuff. [ 3] This is especially true at work. No matter how important we are in the company or organization, in the grand scheme of things, it s the small stuff that makes up our jobs. Most of the time, there s someone else who can do them, which doesn t make our jobs, or us, less meaningful. It means that we should always pay attention to our freedom of imagination: to play, to hike, to cook, to write science fiction , to become president of a small country, which is always available to us. It comes with the territory. To quote Albert Einstein, Imagination is more important than knowledge.
With the onslaught of television, video games , and the Web, it s easy to forget that we have access to our imaginations at any given moment. We have almost been trained out of using them. But if you talk to anyone who has survived real trauma or has overcome hardship, their imagination is usually their best friend.
In the concentration camps, much like Roberto Benigni s Guido, Frankl seized on various fantasies to fight off ultimate despair. He envisioned meeting his mother once more and visiting with his wife. He also imagined himself climbing mountains again ”one of his favorite pastimes. And he fantasized about having a warm bath, and lecturing to a packed auditorium ”in this way, he said, his own ambition held him back from final despondency.
For prisoners , it s often food that stimulates their imaginations and sends them off on a mental journey. They recreate, over and over, the meal they will eat when they are free. They can see it, touch it, taste it, and smell it vividly in their mind s eye. It s a meal that sees them through years of isolation and hopelessness. It s a meal that offers meaning to their lives.
When we get too focused on what s right in front of us at work ”whether it s an oppressive manager, a wayward employee, a complicated task, or a boring routine ”it s like looking at the earth from space and focusing on just one rain cloud over Idaho. We need to remember that life is huge, and so are our lives. When we get distressed about our jobs and work, we are losing sight of the meaning in our lives. Our ability to detach from the distress and focus imaginatively on something that pleases us, returns us to our freedom and to our source of authentic meaning.
Creative distraction, or de-reflection to use Frankl s word, is also useful when we have to do something really important at work, like give a presentation or be part of a crucial meeting. By calming down and making sure that we are breathing and in our bodies, we can imagine ourselves in a safe and nurturing place. We can fill ourselves with our selves, and not be so vulnerable to whatever role it is we think we are expected to play. When we bring our true, centered selves to the situation, even if we don t always know the right thing at the right moment, we bring our inherent authority, the person we are, to the situation. This is something to which we are all sensitive. We know when someone is being authentic and we feel comfortable. We like them. We feel at ease. By drawing imaginatively from where we feel most authentic in the world, we can go beyond role playing in our jobs. In turn , an ethics of authenticity emerges and real work can begin. [ 4]
This is particularly important when we think our roles are what people expect. We can often do and say things that enhance our vision of our role at work. But in the long run, it is exhausting ”for us and for others. Knowing our job and playing a role are two different things. Being who we are and doing our job is the most powerful combination of all.
Sometimes we need help to get there, and it is our ability creatively to de-reflect that can help us the most. It is always available. Just imagine.
Often, when we de-reflect ”that is, shift our focus of attention ”from what is bothering us at work, we get a different insight into the problem. Many of our challenges with others have to do with how we personally see things, how we make decisions, and the style with which we do our jobs. These can be very different processes for different people. How we constructively perceive these differences can get a big boost from a little de-reflection.
De-reflection is intended to counteract . . . compulsive inclination to self-observation. [ 5 ]
The principle of de-reflection, Frankl would say, helps us to ignore those aspects of our life and work that should be ignored. It also helps to turn us away from being self-absorbed with our problems and directs us towards the true meanings that beg to be discovered by us. In effect, de-reflection encourages us to perceive something new in a situation so that we may let go of our old perceptions and ways of doing. Through this meaning-centered process, we are able to mature by transcending those conditions that limit us, so that we may make new commitments and identify those things that can (and should) be avoided.
Let me introduce you to a simple exercise that can help you practice de-reflection and deal with real, practical issues at work and in your everyday life. It s called the Mental Excursion Exercise. In addition to helping you shift your focus of attention and take a mental journey elsewhere, this exercise can be used to facilitate creative thinking and problem solving.
Begin by jotting on a piece of paper the situation, problem, or predicament you are facing. Now, list analogous situations to yours, while making sure that you stretch your imagination as much as possible by deferring judgment. Enjoy the process of free association and making connections in your mind. Remember, you are trying to get away from your problem situation, so identify some situations that are varied and different from each other. As a catalyst and guide, go ahead and fill in the blanks of the following sentence : My problem situation, (what is it?) , is like (what is analogous to my problem situation?) . For example, The challenge of having to merge two different organizations is like getting married. Once again, stretch your thinking!
Now, select at least two items from your list of active analogies and brainstorm the things that you would need to do or have in order to resolve each of these situations. In the sample analogy, for example, what are all of the things that you need to do in the process of getting married? Capture your thoughts by listing them. Continue to suspend judgment at this stage of the exercise so that you capture as many thoughts as possible.
Congratulations! You ve taken a mental excursion ” actually, two or more excursions. Now return to your original issue ”your point of departure , so to speak ”spend some time generating ideas for possible solutions. The best way to do this step is to make connections between as many of the items as possible on the list and in the original situation. Since you chose situations that were analogous to your original one, you know right away that there is a relationship between them. Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to use your list of analogous items (for example, the things you identified that need to be done in the process of getting married) as a springboard for generating ideas that may be used to approach, or even solve, your original problem situation (for example, merging two different organizations). Two ideas that might come to mind are: (1) decide where to live (office location) and how to merge two households (offices); and (2) invite the families (executive teams) to a rehearsal party!
We all bring different histories, experiences, skills, and motivations to our jobs. When we incorporate a bit of dereflection into our processes, we invite others to be as effective as they know how to be without anyone feeling judged by the differences.
Exercising our ability to de-reflect difficulties at work helps us to be more and more resilient. We have a reliable and constructive way of coping when things get difficult. It s a mindset that can serve us in minor challenges, such as deciding what kind of office equipment to buy, and in big ones, such as how to deal with losing our jobs.
In a perfect world, the jobs we love would be ours forever. But more and more skilled people are faced with losing their jobs after many years of employment. Sometimes the shock of job loss is sudden; we are forced into action. Other times we can see it coming ”the possibility, if not always the probability. In either case, fear and anxiety come with the insecure territory. It can make us gear up to be better and more impressive or productive employees, or we can shift our focus from our immediate investment in our job and imaginatively look up and out over our personal horizons. The possibilities are unlimited and the choice is ours to make.
Our ability to forget ourselves and literally shift our focus of attention can be very useful in the search for meaning. When it helps us reconnect to who we are, who we love, and what s worth doing, de-reflection restores us above and beyond our jobs and our money. No longer a prisoner of our thoughts, it restores us to meaning.
Recall a situation in your work life from which you felt the need to shift your attention in order to deal with it effectively (this may even be your situation today). Perhaps you were faced with a business problem that was especially stressful. Perhaps you were thrust into an emergency situation that required swift action. How did you shift your focus from the situation to something else? What did you imagine, or fanaticize about? What, if anything, did you do as a result of your shift of focus? As you think about the situation now, what did you learn from it? In particular, what did you learn about your capacity for de-reflection? In hindsight, what would you have done differently in this situation?
Meaning Question: In what ways do you use your imagination to shift your focus of attention when dealing with problematic situations at work or in the workplace?
For Further Reflection: Think about the ways in which you can help your colleagues and/or co-workers learn and practice de-reflection at work ”as a coping mechanism and a tool for learning and growth. What would you have them do to demonstrate that they understand and can apply this principle?
[ 1] Viktor E. Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul: From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy (New York: Random House, 1986), p. 254.
[ 2 ] Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul, p. 125.
[ 3] See Robert Carlson, Don t Sweat the Small Stuff at Work (New York: Hyperion, 1999).
[ 4] See Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1991).
[ 5 ] Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul, p. 255.