The List

A favorite client struggles with a god-awful boss. Demeaning, incompetent, aggressive (no, I’m probably not talking about you) – not a fun combination for my client to manage every day.

My client is in an active, highly-organized job search. She’s leaving this boss as soon as she can. In the meantime, she has to go to work every day. And takes a hit to her confidence and optimism every day.

So how do I coach this client? I’m not about to help her grow a thicker skin – she has beautiful skin already. I’m not about to help her learn not take everything so personally – life is personal and I’ve always thought that was worthless advice for everyone except maybe cyborgs.

I asked this client to list five things she appreciates about a particularly rough interaction with this boss. My client rolled her eyes at me.

“I mean it,” I said. “Give me five things.”

It took a while, but my client came up with the following list:

  1. I appreciate the value of not always being solution-driven
  2. I appreciate the importance of maintaining my poise
  3. I appreciate that someone can be wrong and still have great hair
  4. I appreciate learning to be aware/careful of my audience
  5. I appreciate the value of listening but not acting

My client started to talk again about the bad, upsetting, unfair thing that happened at work. “Stop that,” I said. “Tell me the list.”

Apparently your brain can’t parse fear and appreciation – in all their variations — at the same time. (This is according to Dan Baker, a PhD psychologist who wrote the very readable book What Happy People Know).

Yeah, I’m skeptical, too. So I decided to try it on myself. I have a difficult relationship with someone I can’t avoid (having to do with ivy, if you’ve been reading this blog for awhile!) that upsets me when I think about it. I wrote a Top 5 Things I Appreciate About This Regrettable Situation list:

  1. My partner and I are a unified team
  2. I did a spectacular job modeling making a mistake for my children
  3. It makes a good dinner-party story
  4. We have a new fence
  5. I don’t stumble over weed-infested ivy when I get out of my car

As I started to ruminate about this troubling relationship, my brain running a well-worn track of negativity, I stopped and forced myself to go through the Top 5 Things I Appreciate About This Regrettable Situation list.

And the damndest thing happened.

It felt like a cool breeze blew through my brain. I felt relieved. And I stopped thinking about it.

So when you’re lying in bed at 2:30 a.m. thinking about that awful thing, write your Top 5 list about what you appreciate about the situation. Nothing is all bad. Focus on that list – over and over — when your brain starts skipping down that path of negativity.

Tell me how it goes.

Note: This post was written and published with the express permission of this client.