In the classic film, The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s adventure rings with more familiarity than fantasy at times. We, too, are each following our own yellow brick road, meeting all sorts of people along the way: those seeking heart or mind or courage, those who would thwart our dreams, those who cheer for us, and those who have known us from the very start. What we all share is a common longing for a sense of security and belonging, our own symbolic Home.
After my recent surgery, I was working from my literal home and found that the background television was projecting a lot of emotions into my space. It was right before the holidays, so the ads running at that time were reminding me that shipping days were running out, that there was a turkey shortage, and if I wanted one, I should get one fast….and then there was the news itself, with this alarming trend or that terrifying warning. The endless barrage made it seem as though famine, shortage, and danger were all impending realities. At first, I was only subtly aware of all those messages, but when I paid more attention, I almost had to laugh at the multitude of fears my tv (or rather the people on it) was asking me to accept and embrace.
Remember the children’s fable about Chicken Little? You know, the silly fowl who, after being pinged on the head by an acorn, became convinced that the sky was falling? How often have we, too, “freaked out” in the face of perceived catastrophe, only to find out it wasn’t as dire as we’d first thought?
More likely than not, most of our impending “disasters” aren’t nearly as calamitous as we’d imagined. A friend of mine says that nothing in her life has turned out to be even half as terrifying in reality as it was in her imagination, except for skydiving (I’ve never been skydiving, but seeing videos of my friend’s experiences made me move this way down on my bucket list!). At one time or another, we’ve all looked with dread upon an impending event–maybe a surgery, a math test, dental work, or a confrontation. We tend to conflate the potential negative outcomes and the pain we think we will experience. But usually, it’s not as bad as we’d imagined, is it?
So many terrors are merely acorns that we’ve written a horror movie plotline around. In The Power of Bad, John Tierney and Roy Baumeister explore the phenomenon of negativity bias, or as they call it, the Negativity Effect. Their studies show the myriad ways our brains–not to mention the media and society–focus on the bad and discount the good. As they put it, we humans are wired to be “devastated by a word of criticism but unmoved by a shower of praise. We see the hostile face in the crowd and miss all the friendly smiles.” And naturally, we do the same for our own storylines, turning poppies into poison and minor glitches into exaggerated dramas.
There’s danger in going into panic mode. And it’s our responsibility not to drag others with us. Chicken Little ran straight to his friends and engaged them in the terror of impending disaster. The other animals became so rattled, they foolishly fell for the Fox’s “kind” offer for shelter without knowing he’d planned to eat them all for dinner! Likewise, we tend to ring our own alarm bells to anyone who will listen, whether or not our fears or complaints are warranted. Our motivations may be well-intentioned; we want to warn others in an effort to keep them safe, or perhaps we’re seeking their solace to calm our stress. But before we upset everyone else, it behooves us to do some due diligence and make sure that the threat is real.
Science tells us that we are profoundly affected by those around us. Whether someone lulls us, cheers us, or sends us into stress overload, research has shown that what psychologists call “emotional contagion” occurs among groups of nearly any size. As Dr. Sigal Barsade explains, people are “walking mood inductors” who continuously influence one another.
Maintaining a constant consciousness in the face of outside influence takes consistent awareness. When we knowingly (or unknowingly) subject ourselves to a steady stream of depressing news stories, or we consume large portions of disturbing fare via social media or video games or violent shows on Netflix, we’re being influenced by those messages.
The good news is, we always have a choice.
We will never be able to control all the challenges that come our way or the multitudes of influences that surround us at all times, but we can choose how we feel and react to them. In my book Fear Is Not an Option, I share some practical tools to help you tackle those acorns that make it feel as though the sky is falling.
To start, I encourage you to get objective and see if you can identify any areas of your life where you tend to catastrophize. It’s a common phenomenon and nothing to beat yourself up about. The tale of Chicken Little is really a parable about the dangers of catastrophizing, turning one small acorn into the belief that the sky is falling and the world as we know it will never be the same.
At one time or another, we all have the propensity to assume the most extreme outcome with little or no evidence to support that it is even possible, let alone probable. A catastrophizing thought might sound like this: “If I go to my manager and explain that I am unable to take on another project, they will fire me, and I’ll be in financial ruin.” Catastrophizing thoughts usually have no evidence whatsoever to support them; in fact, in many cases, all evidence points to the contrary.
We owe it to ourselves to objectively consider the reality of our situation, even ponder possible outcomes, but not immediately jump to the worst-case scenario. We don’t have access to our best problem-solving skills from a place of fear or panic, and the toll that stress takes on our physical bodies is profound, especially over time. Likewise, we have a responsibility to every other person around us not to be a mood inductor of anxiety, panic, or fear.
Remember that the sanctuary we’re seeking has been with us all along. Just like the ruby slippers, we always have the power to call ourselves back to our own center, our truth, our true home. And from there, we can respond as our best selves. After all, “There’s no place like home.”