Gain perspective

Updated: May 9, 2019

If you can stay positive in a negative situation, you can rise above it and move forward.

When you experience a situation that brings negative emotions to the fore such as an argument with a partner or friend, being dumped or fired, you might want to consider what psychologists have dubbed "self-distancing". This involves taking a step back and viewing a situation objectively as if you were an observer in the situation rather than one of the protagonists.

Professor Ethan Kross from the University of Michigan points to the cognitive benefit of self-distancing as it allows "a psychological time out". Kross recommends visualising that you are a fly on the wall in the situation where your only role is to reflect impartially on the situation from a distance. Taking the perspective of a third person in a situation and shifting your original vantage point could help you to respond more constructively, objectively and with a diminished feeling of emotion be that vengeance, frustration, anger or sadness. If you have an argument with another, consider their side and be humble. Imagine how they feel about the situation not just how you feel. Be empathetic and impartial. This is difficult especially in the first flushes of the emotion of the incident but is a strategy to help you process what has truly happened.

Reframing a situation allows us to change our perspective and consider both sides of a dispute. Amy L. Eva writes in Greater Good, a magazine published by the University of California, Berkeley, about the ways that we can achieve self-reflection through self-distancing. One such strategy is to focus on the inevitable passage of time and asking ourselves, "Will this matter to me in one week/five years from now?" The likelihood of our response being affirmative is low. Moving our minds from the present to the future will result in us distancing our emotions from the immediate circumstances. Eva points to the notion that by adopting this strategy we will be less vulnerable to rumination or recurring negative thoughts. Obsessing over what happened and who said what is no longer such an emotive issue if we become the observer.

This idea of questioning our perceptions is one of the many tenets of Stoicism. This Greek philosophy that prioritises reason and logic over emotion would challenge our assumptive behaviour and biases. In Discourses Epictetus wrote, "There are two things that must be rooted out in human beings - arrogant opinion and mistrust. Arrogant opinion expects that there is nothing further needed, and mistrust assumes that under the torrent of circumstance there can be no happiness." Here Epictetus tells us that we should not be certain of anything. We should be humble and ask ourselves if we have considered all angles of a situation. Assuming we know all of the answers is egotistical and lacking in sound judgment.

Marcus Aurelius was also a proponent of self-distancing and viewing a situation from multiple angles. In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius advises viewing a situation by "turn(ing) it inside out”. If you consider that conflict at its heart is a battle between two perceived ‘rights’ then backing your own side will always garner the same results. Speaking to someone neutral may be an option, however take care with this approach as unless they have heard the other person’s views, they will only have your take on and packaging of events. By giving yourself mental and physical spatial distance from conflict and viewing all angles you will be able to hone your skills of empathy. You will become less adversarial and will no longer be trapped in your self-centred world.

Adopting a Stoic approach to situations which could give rise to negative emotions should result in a reduced emotional response; a response that is objective, reasoned and distanced from the moment. This is the only time when being the third wheel in a situation is a good idea. Detach yourself from the drama and visualise yourself in a future without it in your mind because it is just not that important. This is not to say we become dispassionate and distant from others, just removed from the heady cocktail of our own emotions and more in tune with and empathetic to those of others. Actively control your emotional response rather than react to it in a way that you may regret and overthink for years to come.

Action plan:

  1. Stop being so self-centred.

  2. Take a step back from volatile situations: observe and think rather than lash out verbally or freeze out others from your life.

  3. Consider the context in which your ‘opponent’ is operating: have they had a rough time of it of late? Everyone is dealing with some private and personal struggle at some point in their lives so be empathetic and cut them some slack. Are you being over sensitive?

  4. Do not punish others even if you feel that you have been wronged. There is nothing to be gained from this approach only further misery for you.

  5. Consider whether the event will have any importance in five years time. If it is unlikely to still be relevant in the future, brush it off and move on however difficult this feels.

  6. Try to avoid saying anything negative for 24 hours. Watch how your outlook changes.

  7. Stop thinking that people think and see things the way you do. They often don’t or won’t.

  8. Not every situation deserves a reaction from you.

  9. If you can stay positive in a negative situation, you can rise above it.

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