Taming Your Inner Grouch

Continue helping others by starting to help yourself.

“Today I escaped anxiety. Or no, I discarded it, because it was within me, in my own perceptions — not outside.”
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

Abstract

A negative mindset can kill your creativity, spark unhealthy conflict, damage workplace relationships and impact your wellbeing. Worst of all, negativity can transform you into a grouch — that designer no one enjoys working with.

To work effectively with other people, we must first take care of our own mind and emotions. We need to learn self empathy — the purposeful discovery of underlying thoughts and emotions that guide our decisions and behaviors.

In this article, I share techniques to help you identify and rewire negative thinking to prevent situations of unhealthy conflict. Like any skill, this needs to be practiced.

Designing for impact relies on successful collaboration

As design becomes central to business success, so has our acknowledgement of the emotional intelligence designers must practise in order to thrive.

The most impactful designers recognize that their contribution is as much craft skill as it is helping their team realize a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts. Today’s greatest designers do not act alone. This is collaboration.

Collaboration is about genuinely creating opportunities for a range of diverse perspectives to be meaningfully contributed, meanwhile mobilizing the team towards a shared understanding and ownership of the problems to be solved.

Collaboration is the hardest part of the job, because it requires unrelenting healthy interaction and communication with people — not just at the outset of the project, but throughout every phase.

Good work requires good conflict

Silos, turf wars, egocentricity, apathy, personal biases, politics, misconceptions and difficult personalities are a reality of creative projects. Throw smart people and collaboration into this mix and conflict inevitably manifests.

Most of us think that conflict is destructive. It conjures images of drama, arguments, aggression and antagonism. We tell ourselves and advise our peers to avoid conflict and pick your battles. Thinking like this predisposes us adversarially to a winner and a loser type situation — the exact opposite of the team sport mindset we need to create great products and services.

Conflict is not always detrimental, nor something we should be actively trying to avoid. In his book, Designing Together: The collaboration and conflict management handbook for creative professionals, Dan Brown writes:

conflict and collaboration are equal and necessary forces to move projects forward.”(xxi)

Brown tells us that there are actually two types of conflict: healthy and unhealthy conflict. Healthy conflict is a process we go through to build a shared understanding of design decisions. Healthy conflict helps us achieve clarity, whilst growing and validating ideas. Unhealthy conflict is counterproductive, preventing teams from engaging in meaningful discourse.

You’ll recognize unhealthy conflict, when you hear things like this (inside or outside your own head):

  • “This onboarding experience sucks. What’s the point of building the rest?”
  • “The Product Managers at this company have no idea what they’re talking about. What a group of overpaid monkeys.”
  • “This product is going to fail so badly. No one listened to me.”

These examples may seem exaggerated, however subtle, or less antagonistic thoughts can be just as damaging. Many of us even confuse this type of thinking as being ‘passionate’.

The rest of this article is not about managing situations of unhealthy conflict with other people — Dan Brown has already done an excellent job of this in his book Designing Together. Rather, this article is about helping you take responsibility for your own negative thoughts and avoid being the source of unhealthy conflict to continue feeling better about yourself and your work.

The way you make me think

“My life has been filled with terrible misfortunes, most of which have never happened.” 
— Mark Twain

Have you ever wondered why some people get worked up and angry over small disagreements, while others respond more positively? Some of us will feel hopeless when faced with a difficult situation, while others will feel challenged. These different reactions are influenced entirely by the way we look at the world around us. Our feelings are a result of the meaning we give to an event, not the event itself. We process, before we feel and many of us process reality inaccurately.

This negative interference are cognitive distortions — distorted thinking patterns that reinforce negative thoughts and feed negative emotions.

Distorted thinking is simply a way that our mind convinces us of something that isn’t true. We tell ourselves things that sound rational and accurate in the moment which keeps us in a grouchy mindset — negatively affecting our emotions and actions.

Cognitive distortions are a concept from Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. Psychiatrist Aaron T. Beck laid the groundwork and his student David D. Burns continued research on the topic, elaborated in his 1989 book: The Feeling Good Handbook. Burns presents techniques to help us recover from distorted thinking by recognizing and replacing them with more constructive and optimistic responses.

When you’re feeling upset, you’re involved in a mental con, but you don’t realize it. You’re telling yourself things about yourself and the world that aren’t really true.

Changing the way you think, can literally change the way you feel and behave.

The emotional designer

Cognitive distortions can become a habit from a quite a young age and most of the time we won’t even be aware that they are flooding our minds. This affects many of us to the point where we have an overall negative outlook on the world. This state of grouch can eventually lead to a depressive or anxious mental state.

But what does this do to our work?

Famous psychologist Alice Isen found that whilst positive moods facilitate creative problem-solving, negative emotions, lead us to think more narrowly.

“Negative emotions like fear and sadness can lead to brain activity and thought patterns that are detrimental to creative, productive work: (a) avoidance of risk; (b) difficulty remembering and planning; and (c) rational decision-making.”

Motivation is also driven by feeling and is the main influencer on our performance. Psychologists Amabile and Kramer asserts that the components of inner work life — motivation, emotions, and perceptions feed each other. They are critical not only to performance, but also to the health and wellbeing of an employee.

The private conversations you have with yourself can be either a powerful stepping stone or a major obstacle to reaching your goals. If your inner monologue repeats things like, “I’m not good enough”, you’ll struggle to present yourself in a confident manner. Often, those negative predictions can quickly turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Your thoughts greatly influence how you feel and behave which can cause negative self-talk to become downright self-destructive.

Rewire your brain

We designers like to see ourselves as masters of logic who carefully deliberate over every decision. We idolize designers that exert the greatest control over their emotions; or appear to feel no emotions at all. Emotion is perceived as a weakness that obstructs reasoning and rationality.

Our first instinct in situations of negativity is to try and skip the ‘feeling’ part. This is not only unavoidable, it’s short-sighted and based on two false assumptions:

  1. We have an active choice to feel or not feel
  2. Suppressing our emotions works

The Rebound Effect coined by Dr. Daniel Wegner shows that the more we try to suppress intrusive thoughts, the more they pop back up, in an intensified way.
 
We should not neglect, devalue or bury our emotions because doing so has the potential to make the situation worse. Rather, how we respond to situations is determined by the most frequently fired neural pathways in our brains. Repeating negative thoughts literally carves neural pathways into our brains, creating natural trails for grouchy responses and grouchy behavior.

Research in brain plasticity has revealed that the brain has the ability to reshape neural pathways even if they’ve been ingrained for years. How we habitually respond to situations of conflict can be changed by consciously generating different thoughts. When you think new thoughts, you create new pathways.

Check yo’ self before you wreck yourself

Taming your grouch relies on becoming aware of the thoughts your grouch is generating. This is challenging because distorted thinking is often so habitual that it’s difficult to notice when you are doing it.

If you’re willing to monitor and experiment with different thoughts, you’ll be able to turn those grouchy automatic processes into positive conscious processes again.

Step 1. Think about how you’re thinking.

Observe the patterns of your thinking process. Pay attention to your inner grouch talk and listen to what he is saying. It helps to keep a journal and write down the situations and thoughts you experience (I’ve recently started and highly recommend using Moodnotes by ustwo). At the end of the day, reflect upon what you wrote down.

For each of your thoughts, try and identify which cognitive distortion (see below) it relates to. Then write down a more balanced alternative thought. It helps to question the way we are looking at situations and to force ourselves to be more flexible and to look at other possible ways of thinking of and responding to a situation.

After keeping a journal for a week you’ll learn to recognise the situations and people that are likely to be associated with your grouchy thinking.

Step 2. Refute

By learning to correctly identify your cognitive distortions, you can learn to refute the thoughts. Refuting grouchy thoughts as they occur derails them from the habitual path they follow. This allows us to redirect them and forge new more positive ways of thinking.

Be mindful of your feelings when you’re conversing with others, working on a project, or making decisions. Mindful awareness alone can make you more conscious of your reality distortions. This awareness, combined with willingness and humility, will lead to an entirely new perception of reality, one that will bring greater levels of compassion and peace.

Here are some examples of my own grouchy thoughts and the techniques I’ve learned to refute them:


All-or-nothing thinking

You see things as black or white. You have to be perfect or you’re a total failure — there’s no middle ground. You reduce complex outcomes into absolutes. You see people in black or white categories, with no shades of gray.

Grouchy thinking:

“What good is this research if we’ve only got budget for a half a day. We might as well do nothing at all.”

More balanced thinking:

“I’ll use this opportunity to do something quick and dirty. Any amount of research usually leads to some surprise learnings that are useful.”

Don’t put things, yourself or others in “either/or” categories. This is not only negative, but can also be damaging to your self-esteem and others. Challenge yourself to think of times when these words are not true. Remember, there are few situations that are absolute.


Overgeneralization

You use a single negative incident as evidence that nothing will ever go right again.

Grouchy thinking:

“This kickoff meeting was managed terribly. If this is any indication of how things are handled by this Product Manager, the project is going to suck. I might as well quit now.”

More balanced thinking:

“This kickoff could have been handled better with more structure — especially with the dynamic of people in the meeting. Since there’s no way for me to foresee the future, I’ll be proactive and offer some feedback to the Product Manager. I would sure like it when it’s my turn to facilitate.”

We all have negative events that have taken place. Some of those events inconvenience us, some really make our lives miserable. The challenge is to take those negative events and believe that we can create different outcomes in the future.

Remember, that a single negative experience doesn’t hold true forever. It may also be helpful to reflect on times where a single negative experience did not have the same long lasting outcome to reinforce your perspective.


Labeling

You use a characteristic or event to label yourself or others in an emotionally loaded, overly harsh way.

Grouchy thinking:

“This visual design work is littered with usability issues. John is the shittiest, yet most arrogant designer I’ve ever worked with. Now I have to redo the whole damn thing. Our team doesn’t need this.”

More balanced thinking:

“John isn’t exactly setup for success in his current role. I should talk to our manager to see if I could help him grow, while I practice my mentoring skills. If that doesn’t work out, then it’s probably best we find a team where John can grow.”

Many times after a disappointing moment or a failed attempt at something we tend to label ourselves or others. Challenge these negative thoughts by replacing them with positives. For every negative, there is a positive.

You may have failed at one attempt (or maybe even several), but it doesn’t make you a failure. The biggest failure is not even trying. Learn how to separate these and avoid those negative labels.


Filtering / Disqualifying the positive

You exclusively dwell and magnify the negative details, which distorts the reality and taints the positive aspects of a situation.

Grouchy thinking:

“I can’t believe I had to pull another all-nighter to create this presentation. If no one is managing up, then what the hell are they doing? Obviously, this company doesn’t respect my time. Screw the presentation.”

More balanced thinking:

“Putting in those additional hours really paid off. The CEO loved my work and even though I’m exhausted, I managed to do a really great job at presenting. The rest of the project should be much more streamlined now.”

Review the events of the day or the moment and create a list of positive vs. negative. More often than not you will discover that the positive side is greater. Externalizing positives creates the visual we need to put things in perspective. Focus on all of the positives that happen as well.


Mind Reading / Fortune Telling

You arbitrarily conclude that someone is reacting negatively to you. You believe you know the thoughts, feelings of another person and infer responses, and motives of others without evidence, such as bothering to ask or find out. From there, you assume things will turn out badly and you’re convinced your predictions are an already established fact.

Grouchy thinking:

“Since submitting upward feedback to my manager, he seems to be mad at me. I hope I didn’t say anything wrong. This week is going to be awkward.”

More balanced thinking:

“If she was genuinely interested in what I had to say, she has no reason to be mad. She’s probably got her own stuff going on, so I can’t be certain her behavior has anything to do with me. It’ll be more awkward if I think it’s about me, and I act strange, when it’s probably not.”

Think before you jump to a conclusion. Take a step back and ask yourself “is this really true?” If the answer is “no”, then focus on the things that you know to be true. It is also important to remember not to negatively predict your future. If you are going to predict it, be more positive. Instead of saying “I’m going to have a bad day”, say “today may have some obstacles, but I will try and overcome them and have a good day doing so”.


Catastrophizing “End of the world thinking”

You expect the extreme worst scenario to happen by exaggerating the importance of insignificant events.

Grouchy thinking:

“Since the launch, conversions have slightly dipped. I think the whole proposition is completely wrong and we’re going to fail for sure.”

More balanced thinking:

“We should take a deeper look at the data to understand what’s actually happening. It’s only been a week and this could be change aversion. Let’s not make knee-jerk assumptions. Launching such a big change has been a learning experience in itself.”

Think positive. Take the event for what it is and don’t make it anything other than that. In the meantime, focus on positive things you can do. You may find that engaging in other positive thoughts decreases the amount of time there is for negative thinking.


Tyranny of the ‘shoulds’

You try to motivate yourself with “shoulds” and “shouldn’ts”, letting your inner critic take over. This unrealistic demand on yourself often leads to emotional consequences such as guilt, self-hatred, anxiety and depression. This also causes procrastination, withdrawal, obsessing about what has been done (“I should have done X instead of Y.”) and worrying about, “What should I do?”

We also place these demands onto others. We judge their actions and are often clouded with feelings of anger (“How dare you!), guilt-tripping (“You should know better.”), jealousy, hurt and self-pity (“How could they have done that to me?”).

Grouchy thinking:

“I should have written a book on design by now. Everyone else I respect did it in their 30's.”

More balanced thinking:

“I would like to start working on my book. I have to start somewhere and there’s no better time than now.”

Change the should into a request or a preference. Evaluate the should, ought or must, and if you decide it’s not warranted, rephrase your sentence as an aim, a suggestion, or a preference.

The more often we say should, the more we reinforce a distorted view of how the world should be. Our demands of the world are often not met, and thus the more frustrating our world becomes.

By avoiding shoulds, oughts and musts we drop our belief of how things should be, and become more relaxed, easygoing and flexible. As a result we reduce our capacity to become anxious.

Start today

While we spend a large amount of our workday interacting with technology, it’s the personal interactions you have with your peers that truly shape project success and your destiny.

The compelling pitch you gave or the sleek prototype you coded, won’t last in people’s minds. What will, is that time you threw someone under the bus to make yourself look better, or that time you went out of your way to help someone in need.

If you can’t work and play well with others, no matter how good your craft skills, your impact is always going to fall short of something greater.

After I experienced how negativity influenced my own emotional health, I realized my behavior and effectiveness as a designer was negatively impacted. Worst of all, negativity was being absorbed and affecting those around me too. The greatest lesson I learned, was that my thoughts, feelings and actions were all completely within my control.

Keeping my interactions positive and constructive has been a continued effort and has become one of my most prized skills. It has also been the most rewarding and is only possible because I’m constantly motivated to do better work, in healthier ways.

If you’re motivated to be a better designer, then you must start by reflecting on your interactions. I urge you to dig a little deeper and confront the insecurities that lead to any of the aforementioned negative thinking and behaviors. You’ll be surprised at how this changes the way you feel and the kind of impact your work can have.

Tomorrow’s most complex design challenges need more people like you connecting in ways that are authentic, relevant, accessible and positive.

‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’
 — Maya Angelou

Related Resources


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