I sat down to write this blog post and hated everything I typed.
As I hit backspace for the 469th time, incredibly unhelpful thoughts swam through my head.
What’s the point?
No one’s even listening to me.
I don’t want to bother people.
Who am I to do this work?
I’m wasting my time.
This is too hard.
I could feel myself internally curling into a ball. In the span of 20 minutes at my laptop, my mind had gone from “Hell yes, let’s do this” to “Actually, let’s go hide under the bed.”
This is what I like to call ~Change Maker Mind Drama~.
Change maker mind drama is the mental and emotional anguish that we can experience throughout our systems change efforts- typically after encountering an obstacle. Sometimes, these obstacles are real external setbacks, like when your grant proposal is denied. Sometimes, we generate our own, perceived obstacles in the form of anxiety about the future, self-consciousness about our qualifications, and overwhelm about the scale of the problem. And sometimes, we just wake up in a funk.
Mind drama - though incredibly common - can feel really destabilizing, especially for highly motivated healthcare professionals. And while there is no cure, building the skill of resilience can help us take care of ourselves when the mind drama hits and reduce its impact.
Here are a few ways to practice building resilience during your next change maker funk.
#1 Normalize your experience.
You are human with an emotional brain. When you step outside of the status quo, challenge dominant narratives, or even just do an activity you’ve never done before, your brain will have its dramatic moments. So when it comes up for you, don’t let it mean more than it does.
If you find yourself having thoughts like the ones I listed above, pause. Rather than working yourself into a mental tangle about what it MEANS about you (or your work) that you’re thinking this way, say out loud, “This is normal.” Or maybe, “Ope, here’s that mind drama again.”
Personally, I like to document when my mind drama flares up. I keep a running tally of my “Change Maker Mind Drama Days” in the Notes app on my phone. When I can look back and see that every five-six weeks I have a ‘high drama’ day, these gloomy periods lose their impact.
Better yet, brief daily or weekly reflection allows us to catalog the good AND the bad - and see the normal fluctuations in our mindset. This is also a benefit of long-term mentorship or coaching.
#2 Separate yourself from your thoughts.
You are not your thoughts. You are not your feelings. Thoughts and feelings come and go. You remain.
Cognitive defusion is the act of changing how you relate to your thoughts, so that we go from believing our thoughts as absolute truths to understanding that they are simply stories our brains offer us. As neutral observers, we can be aware of our helpful thoughts without fully buying into them. We get to choose which stories about ourselves and our circumstances to believe.
My friend and behavior change expert Dr. Karin Nordin recommends using phrases like “My brain wants me to believe [negative thought]” or “My brain is telling me [negative thought]” to help us create this healthy separation from our unhelpful thoughts.
The next time you’re deep in the mind drama - say it’s “No one cares about this work”, challenge your brain. “My brain is telling me that no one cares about the work that I’m doing. But is this really true? Do I know for a fact that NO ONE cares? Is it possible that one person out there cares? Maybe even multiple people?”
As we separate from the dramatic “No one cares” thought, we can move to choose a new, more helpful thought: “There may be a lot of people out there who value this work.” From this new thought, we can act with more hope, creativity, and engagement. Again, a good coach can guide you through this process.
#3 Practice self-compassion.
Tackling complex system challenges as a change maker can be daunting - and sometimes exhausting. Acknowledging this is an act of self-compassion.
Sometimes your mind drama is a sign that in order to take care of yourself, something needs to shift. Practicing self-compassion can look different depending on the circumstance. Sometimes showing compassion for yourself looks like softness: taking a bath or pushing back a deadline. Other times, self-compassion can manifest as strength: advocating for yourself at work or protecting Future You’s time by sticking to the deadline.
If the idea of self-compassion is new to you, it may be tricky to know what you need in a given situation: that softness or that strength. A good place to start is to imagine a friend in your circumstance. What would you recommend she do?
Another option is to make a choice and play it out in your head. For example, “If I take a bath right now, what will that get me? I will feel calm for a few minutes - but I’ll likely feel anxious about this deadline shortly after. If I stay late to finish the project, what will that get me? I will be tired when I get home, but I will be able to fully relax knowing the work is done.” In this case, summoning the strength to continue may be the more compassionate choice.
With practice, self-compassion will begin to feel easier and more natural.
#4 Design a Care Plan.
If we know that mind drama is a common symptom of change making….let’s have a plan to manage it!
I challenge you to come up with 3 interventions to implement when you feel the mind drama creep in. Use points 1-3 above to generate ideas.
Here are a few of mine:
Take a walk outside. - Sometimes just getting away from my desk and into fresh air clears my head.
Reach out to my coach. - I am comfortable doing a lot of self-coaching throughout my day, but sometimes I need to call in reinforcements. Often, just the act of downloading my negative thoughts to a third party helps me neutralize their influence over me.
Reconnect with my personal vision. - After a year of daily reflection, I made the connection between my mindset and my purpose. If I went too many days avoiding - or being kept from - work that felt meaningful to me (and that would bring me closer to my vision), the mind drama would start to set in. Now, I keep my personal vision map front of mind (and my eyeballs; it’s bookmarked in my browser). When I’m feeling funky, I pull it up and do one thing that day - no matter how small - that gets me closer to that vision.
Mind drama may be common, change makers, but that doesn’t mean it’s harmless. Looking back on my earliest change project as a college student, I know that my mind drama made the process a lot more painful than it needed to be. I also believe it kept me from pushing for a bigger impact.
But being aware of the phenomenon - and developing skills and tactics to move through it - can make all the difference.
When we think about 'making change', we typically think of bold advocation and bullhorns. And there is certainly a time and place for that intensity. But the journey of a change maker is lifelong, and obstacles are inevitable. Developing the skill of resilience ensures our efforts - which yes, sometimes may be intense - are ultimately sustainable.
Thus, resilience is a cornerstone skill of Change Making. (In fact, these tips were pulled from the Resilience modules of my program Change Maker Essentials.) We *must* be able to navigate obstacles as they come up - including those that come from our own minds.