In the early 1980s, I had a casual job at McDonald’s. One night I was rostered on the front counter. It was quiet as the dinner time rush hadn’t kicked in yet. I slipped out to the dining room to relieve my boredom. My 16 year old self had just eased into a friendly chat with a couple of guys when my attention was caught by a man entering the restaurant brandishing a rifle.
As the gunman approached the counter, our mature-aged shift manager, positioned himself across from him. The manager said, “How can I help you sir?” I’ll never forget this because I was amazed by, and grateful for, his calm response. Perhaps we had his military background to thank for that.
The gunman demanded to see Jane (not her real name) who was one of our full timers. Thankfully Jane had left for the day but of course the gunman wasn’t pleased that he’d missed her. He pointed the gun upwards and fired two shots into the ceiling before jumping the counter and running into the restaurant kitchen.
Interestingly, as I stood in that dining room my prevailing thought was “OMG, I’m going to get busted for bludging in the dining room”.
Lucky for us the drama ended quite quickly. A passer-by had seen the gunman enter the restaurant and had immediately called the police. Over the next little while, we were all removed from danger and the and the gunman was apprehended.
Sometime in the following week or two, I was in science class when my teacher, Mr Griffiths, slammed down a metre rule to make a point. I instantly jumped up and fled the classroom crying. I wasn’t there to see his face but I heard that he was bewildered. The crack of that ruler took my brain back to the crack of those bullets at Maccas. Unconsciously my brain made a connection and alerted me to probable danger.
Now the link between these two events is quite obvious and you can likely understand why I was triggered. The thing is though, our brains are constantly making overt and covert connections as we go about our daily life.
In many cases, we are not conscious of why we do what we do and the fact that our interpretation of any situation can differ from other’s because we experience them through the lens of OUR past experiences, psychological state, beliefs, values, mindset and many other factors. And if that’s not enough, we have a negativity bias, stemming from earlier stages of our evolution, which increases the likelihood our interpretations will be negative. It’s so important to question our thoughts and to check in with others about their perceptions of an experience.
As I’ve been working on myself in a quest to spend as much time THRIVING as possible, I can suddenly see examples of past interactions that I attached unhelpful meanings to, for example …
I didn’t have to interpret a boyfriend telling me “I don’t think we’re right for each other” or “I can’t give you what you want” as “There’s something wrong with me”. I can now appreciate that we weren’t right for each other and staying together was going to dramatically reduce both our chances of meeting someone who was; that the issue could be his not mine; and that I am not fatally flawed!
And the same can apply to other situations like job search, winning a client, missing out on a promotion, … We always have a choice about what meaning we attach to anything we hear or experience.
Something that I’ve found really useful is to introduce a reflective practice (I’m not talking about the ruminating I often used to do). I mean allowing some time to consider our reactions to certain situations, particularly those that left us feeling negative. What might be fuelling your reaction? Ask yourself – do I have insecurities, past negative experiences, fears, beliefs … that could be influencing my reaction? Could there be an alternative or more helpful interpretation of the situation?
I’ve been finding journaling incredibly useful for reflection and can highly recommend it to anyone wanting to understand yourself better and to spending more time THRIVING.
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Donna Thistlethwaite is a Brisbane-based speaker and trainer specialising in mental health and resilience. She is an accredited Mental Health First Aid Instructor and Resilience at Work Facilitator with a passion for suicide prevention and for helping individuals, teams and organisations to THRIVE. You can find out about her next Mental Health First Aid courses here.