It was a dark and stormy night…
Ah, the cliché to beat all clichés. But it’s the truth, so I’m going with it. Anyway, on this dark and stormy night I was alone in my car, and had just made a left hand turn onto a freeway onramp when my car started hydroplaning and I lost control, the steering wheel spinning against my hands. Now this particular onramp was flanked by two pretty steep downhill embankments, with no guardrail or other barrier, and my car was skidding dangerously close to the one on the left.
At the time, I was a relatively inexperienced driver, so I did what any inexperienced driver would do – I panicked. White-knuckled and frantic, I gripped the wheel and jerked hard to the right, my wide eyes focused on the rapidly approaching embankment.
If you’ve had practice driving in inclement weather, you’ll know I made two fundamental mistakes:
1) I tried to force my way out of the skid.
2) I focused on where I didn’t want to go (experts call this “target fixation”).
Neither of these strategies worked very well – I overcorrected and the car fishtailed, spinning a full 180 degrees. I was now skidding directly toward the rapidly approaching right embankment, which dropped a hundred feet into a ravine. My heart was racing, my whole body tensed as I braced myself for what was sure to be a pretty disastrous outcome. Fortunately, at the last moment I remembered a bit of wisdom from my driver’s ed instructor: “Turn into the skid.”
Without going into too much of the mechanics of it, turning into the skid enables the car’s wheels to gain traction, which in turn affords you control over the car. By setting our eyes on our desired target (rather than focusing on the looming danger), our bodies naturally line up and allow us to steer in that direction. Conversely, fixating on the obstacle – where we don’t want to go – will, in many cases, result in the exact outcome we were trying to avoid.
Similarly, in life, sometimes we find ourselves careening towards something we were desperately trying to avoid. Worse, we may find ourselves stuck in a flat-out dead spin, one where no amount of struggling is enough to regain the traction needed to correct our course. Unfortunately, when we’re in these situations, our default reaction is often to stay in the struggle, focusing squarely on what we DON’T want. The bad relationship, the soul-sucking job, the overwhelming clutter, the monumental undertaking.
By doing this, we drastically limit our ability to steer ourselves in the right direction. Instead of setting our vision on what we truly desire, we keep our eyes trained on the negative, while redoubling our attempts to brute force our path to freedom. Most of the time, all this does is keep us spinning and struggling until we’re completely frustrated and overwhelmed.
Instead, we should remember what they taught us in driver’s ed. When things start spinning out of control, the first thing to do is turn into the skid.
This pretty easy to understand when we’re talking about driving. However, when we’re applying it to life, the application may not be as obvious, so I’m asking you to stick with me.
Turning into the skid involves first, accepting what is. This doesn’t mean we have to accept it forever, but we do have to accept it right now, because quite frankly, that’s how reality works. If I’m in a dead spin, there’s nothing I can do until I acknowledge the situation for what it is. By honestly assessing and accepting where I currently am, I free myself from the cycle of fruitless struggling.
It’s amazing what happens when we do this. The human mind is infinitely creative, capable of finding all sorts of solutions, but it requires guidance. Just like an out of control car, left undirected our minds can spin out and cause all sorts of chaos and pain, particularly when we’re in the midst of an undesirable situation. However, by accepting our circumstances and choosing to focus instead on where we are trying to go, our minds naturally fall into line and start working toward that end.
This second part of the process is critically important: we must focus on WHERE we want to go. Now, in happy-feel-good-times this may seem obvious – so obvious it almost seems silly to mention it. However, when we’re emotionally skidding out, we often don’t actually do this. Instead we expend inordinate energy stressing about where we DON’T want to be, so much that it’s impossible to focus on where specifically we DO want to be (and “anywhere but here” doesn’t count). This pattern of thinking is actually pretty dangerous since what we’re really doing is shifting focus back to exactly what we don’t want; sort of like focusing on the obstacle, instead of focusing on the road.
Maybe this is all too vague. It’s easy to speak in generalities, but they can often be confusing without a specific scenario backing them up. Let me give you a personal example… awhile back I was extremely unhappy in my job. A typical weekday involved me waking up in a bad mood, going to work bitter and annoyed, coming home feeling drained, complaining to anyone who would listen about how unsatisfied I was. It was not a pretty picture, and I wasn’t a very fun person to be around. I knew I needed to change it, and I mentally was frantically struggling to find a way out. But no matter how hard I tried, I stayed stuck.
It took me a while to see that I was spinning out on negativity, and the more I struggled the more stuck I felt. Finally, I came to a place where, exhausted and overwhelmed, I turned into the skid. This wasn’t about giving up, rather it was simply accepting the job for what it was – a situation I was currently in, no more and no less. Once I was able to honestly accept this, I was able to recoup all that mental energy I was expending (and take it from me, it takes A LOT of mental energy to stay in a negativity skid out). Like magic, I suddenly was able to see so many potential opportunities, simply because I was no longer focused on what I didn’t want. After that it was simply a matter of setting my eyes on where I wanted to go, and turning the wheel.
The wonderful thing about this approach is, the more practice we have, the easier it becomes. As with driving, the first time few times we turn into the skid, it feels completely unnatural. Similar to our hands on the out-of-control steering wheel, our minds frantically attempt to resist the negative circumstances, and it requires deliberate, conscious action on our parts to regain control of the spin. However, with practice we become like the Formula One driver, instinctively responding the moment we feel the wheels begin to slip out from under us, the moment we observe negative thoughts starting to swirl. By accepting things as they are, we drop into a new level of thinking, one that is much more capable of finding creative solutions to the problem at hand. Of course it dramatically helps to know where we’re trying to go, preferably before we even start to spin out. It’s not always possible, but proactively defining our desired outcome makes it that much easier to get back on course, because we know in advance what we’re aiming for.
Oh, and in case you’re wondering about how the dark and stormy night turned out…
I followed the driver’s ed instructor’s advice, turned into the skid and kept my eyes on the road. Everything else worked itself out from there.