She was being interrupted during discussions, ignored in conversations, and excluded from meetings. She didn’t have a clue what it was about, but the stress of not knowing was undermining her confidence.
Elizabeth felt confused, disoriented, and afraid for her job. She called me because, not surprisingly, she couldn’t sleep.
And she wanted advice. Should she work every weekend to really impress her boss with her dedication? Meet with her boss and demand an explanation? Resign? Work from home? Hire an attorney?
Before we could have those conversations, though, we needed a way for her to find a calmer place so she could sort through her options in a meaningful way.
The trim tab principle
A big ship is hard to turn. It has a lot of momentum, which means a lot of pressure on the rudder, which means a lot of resistance at the wheel.
So the makers of big ships, in their wisdom, added a trim tab, a kind of tiny rudder on the edge of the main rudder. The trim tab changes the nearby water pressure, which helps turn the rudder. When that happens, the captain at the wheel of the ship can steer almost effortlessly.
For Elizabeth, I wondered what small shift could help her gain the clarity of mind she needed to find a way through the crisis.
As a first step, I suggested mindfulness.
The truth about of mindfulness
Elizabeth’s first response was, “There’s too much going on in my life already. I don’t have time to add something else.”
But mindfulness doesn’t have to take much time. To be sure, there are benefits to spending 30 minutes a day focusing on your breath. But that’s hard for a lot of people, especially busy people.
Mindfulness, at its heart isn’t about time spent. In essence, it’s about presence.
According to Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, and founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, mindfulness means:
in a particular way;
in the present moment,
That’s it. Paying attention. Noticing what’s happening right now with your thoughts, in your body, in your gut.
The rewards of being present
When Elizabeth started to pay more attention to the present moment, several things started to happen:
- She was able to calm down her reactivity* so that she could more realistically assess her situation. It gave her the courage to talk with some trusted colleagues, who confirmed her perception of being excluded, and who were also puzzled by it.
- In this calmer space, it was easier for her to come up with new ideas that would help her move forward. I helped her carefully prepare for a meeting with her boss, so she could better understand her position. Her new non-reactivity was essential here.
- Through mindfulness, Elizabeth found the clarity to choose a path forward, and the perseverance to follow through until she found an exciting and rewarding new job.
Six mindful questions (in 5 minutes)
The practice Elizabeth and I created was simple. Two or three times a day she would sit quietly in her office, and ask herself these questions:
1. How am I feeling right now?
2. What are the sensations in my body right now?
3. What are my thoughts right now?
4. What’s most important to me right now?
5. What do I want to stand for right now?
6. How would I like to be right now?
When you practice mindfulness, you don’t need to change anything – your feelings, your breath, or your thoughts. You don’t have to know what’s important, or where you want to take a stand.
You only have to ask…and notice.
Mindfulness for busy people
In times of crisis, it can feel like you’re at the mercy of events that are outside of you. And when you start to feel like that, your time gets sucked up into managing the crisis.
But what we need most in a pinch doesn’t depend on circumstances, and isn’t about time. Our choice lies in how we use the time and the resources we have.
Now when Elizabeth feels that something is wrong, she turns to mindfulness first.
Like a trim tab, mindfulness can help make a small shift that makes it easier to change in course.
For Elizabeth, those 6 mindful questions led her in less than six months to finding a job she loved.
You can practice mindfulness anytime – when you’re in the shower, planning your day, or washing the dishes. And every time you practice, you make a small shift toward more courage, calm, clarity, and perseverance.
Now, how can mindfulness help you?
* Note: Mindfulness improves focus, memory, and cognitive flexibility, and reduces emotional reactivity and response to stress. For a summary of the research, see:
Davis, Daphne M., and Jeffrey Hayes. “What Are the Benefits of Mindfulness? A Practice Review of Psychotherapy-Related Research.” Psychotherapy 48.2 (2011): 198-208. American Psychological Association. Web