By Judith Norman, MS, LSC, LPC, RPT-S
AKA – How to keep your cool as you’re learning about the newest school initiative!
What are the first things that pop into your head when you reflect upon the question, “what stresses me out?” If you’re being honest, one of your top answers might be, other people! Working in schools, the other adults might stress you out, and the students might stress you out! Yikes, if this is true, you might be wondering if you picked the right field to work in?! Don’t worry. You did. But let’s get curious …
Upon reflection, we know that saying other people stress us out, isn’t the whole picture. In fact, it’s only a small piece of the picture. It’s our perception of the experience that’s creating our stress reaction. How do we know this is true? Think about a time you’ve been in a group and felt stressed out by one person, only to find out that someone else didn’t have the same experience. How could that be, if in fact it was this other person creating the stress? If they were creating the stress, wouldn’t everyone have felt stressed out? Or maybe others in the group felt some stress, but not to the same degree we did? I’m not saying there isn’t a dynamic, of course there is. What I’m suggesting is that there is more going on here.
To really understand our own stress reactions, we must look beyond other people. We must move from “deflective awareness” to “reflective awareness.” Deflective awareness means keeping our energy and attention focused outside of ourselves. Reflective awareness means turning our energy and attention towards ourselves. As we engage in reflective awareness, we’re not blaming ourselves for our reactions … we’re simply trying to better understand them. The more we understand our reactions, the more options we can create for ourselves.
Let’s go back to our example to better understand how this plays out. We feel stressed out and we think to ourselves, “that person is stressing me out!” Another option is to wonder, “what about this experience feels stressful to me?” As we get curious and tune into our experience, we notice that our heart is racing, that our foot is tapping, that we just want to get up and move. It’s getting harder and harder to sit here and listen to them speak. We’re feeling our face start to get hot, as our stress is becoming anger. We take a deep breath and focus on moving our foot in a rhythmic way as we make our exhale longer than our inhale, and feel our heartbeat slow down a bit. As we continue to breathe, we stay curious about this experience. Then it hits us that we feel devalued by what this person is saying.
… It makes sense that we feel stressed because we feel devalued. Deflective awareness keeps us in a state of blaming someone else for our experience. Reflective awareness allows us to explore our experience of feeling devalued. Now we have a choice about how we will respond.
Now, in this scenario, let’s imagine the person that we perceived as stressing us out, is talking about the latest school initiative that we’re being asked to implement. As we’re listening to them speak, we don’t believe they truly understand how to do our job. We don’t feel that they are asking us to do something that is realistic or important.
Okay, so you might be thinking, well wouldn’t anyone feel stressed out by this? There’s actually a wide range of potential reactions to this experience. This might feel hard to believe so we did a little “informal” research. We looked at Facebook responses to a meme of a frustrated looking person with the following caption, “when you are at the Welcome Back faculty meeting and see slide 1 of 428 and all you want to do is go set up your classroom…” Some reactions showed that people felt stressed or devalued, but others had very different reactions. Someone even said this, “I always enjoyed being with the staff and listening to the superintendent or the principal. I never found staff meetings a burden…nor a waste of time.”
I’m not suggesting that feeling stress in the above scenario is somehow wrong, far from it! What I’m suggesting is that when we get curious about our reactions, we have choices about our responses. Easy to do? No! A valuable skill? Yes! Especially as educators! The more you start to understand your reactions, the better you’re able to choose responses that will best serve you and your students.
If we want to support students in choosing their responses, we need to practice doing it ourselves. Otherwise, we’re all stuck in our reactions, which results in escalating behavior in one another. That is another topic!
You might be asking, “where do I start in developing this skill?”
When you find yourself blaming others for how you feel or react…
- Stop, take a deep breath, and get curious…
- Notice what is happening in your body in that moment.
- Keep breathing and let your body tell you what you need to do to feel more regulated.
- Stay with it, and ask yourself, what is true for me right now in this experience?
I’m feeling___, I’m thinking to myself___, I’m remembering___
The person you’re listening to didn’t “create” these feelings, thoughts, or memories. These were already there, the experience prompted them to come to the surface. Deflective awareness keeps them in place to come back another day; reflective awareness helps us begin to work through them, so they don’t continue to control our behavior.
Engaging in reflective awareness is a life skill that takes practice, AND it helps us maintain health and balance in our lives!
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