I post some of the more interesting articles in the WSJ.
Thanks to: Arthur C. Brooks and Oprah Winfrey -WSJ
When faced with difficult circumstances we can’t control, ‘metacognition’ gives us the ability to shape our emotional response.
Feelings, in the enterprise of your life, are like weather to a construction company. If it rains or snows or is unseasonably hot, it affects the ability to get work done. But the right response is not trying to change the weather (which would be impossible) or wishing the weather were different (which doesn’t help). It is having contingency plans in place for bad weather, being ready, and managing projects in a way that is appropriate to the conditions on a given day.
The process of managing this weather is called metacognition. Metacognition (which technically means “thinking about thinking”) is the act of experiencing your emotions consciously, separating them from your behavior, and refusing to be controlled by them. Metacognition begins with the understanding that emotions are signals to your conscious brain that something is going on that requires your attention and action. That’s all they are. Your conscious brain, if you choose to use it, gets to decide how you will respond to them.
Everyone—even the most privileged among us—has life conditions they would like to change.
Everyone—even the most privileged among us—has life conditions they would like to change. As the early sixth-century Roman philosopher Boethius put it, “One has abundant riches but is shamed by his ignoble birth. Another is conspicuous for his nobility, but through the embarrassments of poverty would prefer to be obscure. A third, richly endowed with both, laments the loneliness of an unwedded life.”
Sometimes it’s possible to change your circumstances. If you hate your job, you can usually look for a new one. If you are in a bad relationship, you can try to improve it, or leave it. But sometimes it isn’t practical or even possible. Maybe you hate the weather where you live, but you have family there and a good job, so leaving wouldn’t make sense. Maybe you have been diagnosed with a chronic illness for which there are no promising treatment options. Perhaps your romantic partner has left you against your wishes and cannot be persuaded otherwise. Maybe there is something you don’t like about your body that isn’t possible to change. Maybe you are even in prison.
Here, metacognition comes to the rescue. Between the conditions around you and your response to them is a space to think and make decisions. In this space, you have freedom. You can choose to try remodeling the world, or you can start by changing your reaction to it.
Changing how you experience your negative emotions can be much easier than changing your physical reality, even if it seems unnatural. Your emotions can seem out of your control at the best of times, and even more so during a crisis—which is exactly when managing them would give you the greatest benefit.
That can be blamed in part on biology. Negative emotions such as anger and fear activate the amygdala, which increases vigilance toward threats and improves your ability to detect and avoid danger. In other words, stress makes you fight, flee, or freeze—not think, “What would a prudent reaction be at this moment? Let’s consider the options.”
This makes good evolutionary sense: half a million years ago, taking time to manage your emotions would have made you a tiger’s lunch. In the modern world, however, stress and anxiety are usually chronic, not episodic. Odds are, you no longer need your amygdala to help you outrun the tiger without asking your conscious brain’s permission. Instead, you use it to handle the nonlethal problems that pester you all day long. Your work is stressing you out, for example, or you aren’t getting along with your spouse. Even if you don’t have tigers to outrun, you can’t relax in your cave, because these ordinary things are bothering you.
No surprise, then, that chronic stress often leads to maladaptive coping mechanisms in modern life. These include the misuse of drugs and alcohol, rumination on the sources of stress, self-harm, and self-blaming. These responses don’t just fail to provide long-term relief; they can further compound your problems through addiction, depression, and increased anxiety. What these coping techniques do is try to change the outside world—at least as you perceive it. People who misuse alcohol often say that a few drinks turn off the day’s anxieties like a switch; problems (temporarily) are less threatening.
Metacognition offers a much better, healthier, and more permanent solution. Consider the emotions that your circumstances are stimulating in you. Observe them as if they’re happening to someone else, and accept them. Write them down to make sure they are completely conscious. Then consider how you can choose reactions not based on your negative emotions, but rather based on the outcomes you prefer in your life.
During the day, take a few minutes every hour or so, and ask, ‘How am I feeling?’ Jot it down.
For example, let’s imagine you have a job that is really bringing you down. Let’s say you are bored and stressed, and your boss isn’t competent. You come home every day tired and frustrated, and you wind up drinking too much and watching a lot of dumb television to distract your mind. Tomorrow, try a new tactic. During the day, take a few minutes every hour or so, and ask, “How am I feeling?” Jot it down. Then after work, journal your experiences and feelings over the course of the day. Also write down how you responded to these feelings, and which responses were more and less constructive.
Do this for two weeks, and you will find you are feeling more in control and acting in more productive ways. You will also be able to start seeing how you can manage your outside environment better, perhaps making a timeline to update your résumé and asking a few people for job market advice, and then you might actually start looking for something new.
Boethius, it turns out, was a master of this, and in circumstances much worse than yours or mine. He wrote the words quoted previously from a prison cell while awaiting execution in 524, after being accused of conspiracy against the Ostrogothic King Theodoric—a crime of which he was likely not guilty, but for which he was ultimately executed. Boethius could not change his unfair circumstances. However, he could and did change his attitude toward them. “So true is it that nothing is wretched, but thinking makes it so,” he wrote, “and conversely every lot is happy if borne with equanimity.”