Tuesday, July 27, 2010

I will or will I?

Sharon Wildwind

I’ve heard tell that mystery writers are very fortunate.

In comparison to stories told by non-mystery writers, the mystery community is more supportive than others groups. There are the occasional you-said/no-I-didn’t/yes-you-did spats, but in general we seem not only to get along well, but to actually like and root for one another.

This past week I’ve had a kumquat-week related to encouragement.

A kumquat-week?

You know, your friend invites you to an avant-garde play called, “Under the Kumquat Tree.” As you’re sitting in the audience, you realize that other than a vague impression that kumquat is a fruit you know nothing about it.

For the rest of the week, you’re inundated with kumquats. They’re for sale in your grocery. A woman at work goes on about her kumquat salsa recipe. The magazine you pick up in the dentist’s waiting room has an article, “The Tonic Properties of Kumquats.” You seem to be surrounded by tiny orange fruit.

The past week I’ve been surrounded by stories about encouragement traps. People give what they think is positive advice, but if the recipient is discouraged, depressed, or has a low self-concept, they are likely to become more, not less, discouraged.

The Everyone-Goes-Through-This Trap

“Everyone goes through this. I certainly have.”

What the speaker intends:
This is not the end of the world, and you are not alone.

How the listener may react:
My problem isn’t important. Other people are smarter and more together than I am, so they sail through it. People are mad at me because I’m such a whiner.

What may be more helpful:
“Even though this happens a lot, it’s always tough for the person going through it. Do you see any end in sight?”

The Good-Example Trap

“Look at someone like Helen Keller or Stephen Hawkings. They had to contend with much worse challenges than you do. If they could succeed, you can, too.”

What the speaker intends:
Look for positive role models and take inspiration from them.

How the listener may react:
Wow, I never realized before how much more could go wrong with my situation. I’d never be strong enough and brave enough to accomplish things like those people did.

What may be more helpful:
“Have you got a hero? Tell me about her.”

The I-will-or-will-I Trap

Psychologist Ibrahim Senay of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign recently published research on what he calls the willpower paradox. Test subjects were asked to psych themselves up before being asked to do a task.

Half of the subjects gave themselves a positive pep talk. “I will do this. I will succeed. I see myself succeeding.” etc. The other half were to ask themselves questions: “Will I do this? Will I succeed? What would happen if I don’t succeed?” etc.

That first group—let’s call them the power of positive thinking group—did much worse on the actual task than the second group, what I like to call the power of curiosity group.

This was true even when the pre-task preparation was seemingly neutral. In that test, one group was asked to contribute samples for an unrelated study on handwriting analysis. One group wrote over and over, “I will.” The second group wrote, “Will I?” Again the second group consistently outperformed the first group.

In a third study related to encouraging people to go to a gym to exercise regularly, the people who focused on “Will I?” stated a wider variety of positive reasons for continuing to go to the gym, while the “I will” stated mostly reasons related to generating guilt and self-disappointment if they did not continue to go.

It appears that one of the most helpful things that can be said to encourage another person is, “Are you curious about how this might turn out? Have you thought about what the different outcomes might be?”
_____
Quote for the week:
Curiosity will conquer fear even more than bravery will.
~James Stephens, Irish Poet (1882-1950)

7 comments:

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Sharon, you left out one that often overrides fear for me: "I don't want to miss anything!"

Sandra Parshall said...

Great post, Sharon. I *hate* it when I'm upset and disappointed and somebody says something like, "Go visit a children's cancer ward and you won't feel so sorry for yourself." (Somebody actually said that to me once.) A "friend" who makes you feel worse, makes you feel stupid and selfish for being disappointed, is not a friend at all. That's a person who wants to kick you when you're down.

Sharon Wildwind said...

Great comments. That "don't want to miss anything, Liz, is a terrific example of curosity."

Sandra, even when I was a child, "Think of all the starving children in [country of your choice] in no way made me want to finish the food on my plate.

Tiger said...

Great post and comments. I just wanted to add my two cents and one of the most dreaded remarks people say to me when I am feeling down - "You'll get over it. You're strong."
I'm sure whoever said it meant well, BUT, it sure hurts being on the receiving end.

Sharon Wildwind said...

I agree with you, Tiger. That's another way of saying, "Don't bother me; take care of this yourself and come back when you have it sorted out."

Alyx Morgan said...

This was a very thought-provoking blog. I'm especially fascinated by the I will/Will I? study. I have always thought that it's important to accept the possibility of something other than success when attempting a feat, but I never guessed that it could change the outcome of said success.

Thank you for the great post.

Sharon Wildwind said...

Hi, Alyx,

Apparently the brain is influenced by all kinds of things that we've never thought much about. I read about a study yesterday that said people who fake symptoms of a mental illness (usually to plead diminished capacity in court) often really develop symptoms of that illness.

At the end of the article, the researchers wondered if the opposite would turn out to be true; that if people were taught "symptoms" of a healthy mental outlook, would they develop those as well?