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The hazards of looking on the bright side

Posted January 16, 2014 • Change • by Jennifer Goldman-Wetzler, Ph.D.

In my line of work, it’s easy to look for something wrong to fix. Much of the time, leaders call me precisely because there’s a problem – a team can’t get along; a core market has been disrupted; communication has broken down; a leader is not performing at his potential…the list of what’s wrong can seem endless.

Being aware of what’s wrong is often the first step towards positive change. However: sometimes focusing on what’s wrong also prevents us from noticing what’s right.

“What is she talking about?” you might ask. “I always notice what’s right! It’s just that…a lot is wrong!”

Well, think again. When was the last time you noticed something nice someone did for you, and thanked them for it? When was the last time you stopped to tell someone who works for you what a great job they did? When was the last time you sat and looked out the window and thought, ‘Wow, I’m really lucky to…[fill in the blank]’?

Noticing what’s right seems so obvious. If it feels so good and makes other people feel good, why don’t we do it on a regular basis?

One reason is this: noticing what’s right can cause vulnerable feelings to arise. Yep, that’s right:

Knowing how lucky I am (in my case, to serve great clients, be surrounded by loving family and friends, have amazing colleagues) can actually leave me feeling temporarily worse.

“What?” you might say. Before you conclude that I’m off my rocker, let me explain:

For starters, being aware of how great things really are can bring up deep worry: what would happen if I lost all this?

And second, being aware of what is going well could also potentially focus my attention on other places where things aren’t so great, which I’d frankly rather ignore.

So how can we deal with the vulnerability that arises from being appreciative of what’s right?

One way is to remind yourself that fear of loss is normal. It’s OK to feel vulnerable when you feel grateful. See if you can sit with the worry and vulnerability that might arise. Can you accept that life involves the possibility of losing the good that you have?

Another way to deal with the vulnerability is to notice that it is possible to bothappreciate what is right, and to feel sad or upset when you face what isn’t right…at the same time. Committing to appreciating what is right at the same time as committing to changing what’s wrong can be very freeing.

The next time you find yourself looking for what’s wrong, also be sure to ask yourself: what’s going right here?

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