If you have not read it, I highly recommend Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis. One of Haidt’s metaphors, more thoroughly explained in the book, is the very accessible image of the rider (conscious reasoning self) and the elephant (automatic and unconscious self).
Thinking v. Feeling
The rider can see farther into the distance, plan and sometimes anticipate things that the elephant will do and even explain what the elephant has done, but it is the elephant, by virtue of his great size and lack of need for explanation, that is often in charge of our actions. This is something that we all need to be aware about ourselves, since we all need to be able to work with our own elephant. Beyond that, sometimes someone else’s elephant and rider will clash with ours. Riders beware.Psychological research consistently shows us that in general people overestimate their own goodness compared to that of others. In any situation of conflict or social comparison, our self-perception is distorted because we look at ourselves in a “rose-colored mirror”. Many times a day as we observe or interact with others, our rider keeps the elephant on course by reminding it to (or not to) act. But sometimes the rider must “clean up” after the elephant.
In the world of instant communication, getting your message across is as easy as clicking “send” or if you are a blogger, “publish”. Most of the time this is a fabulously convenient way to keep in touch, plan meetings and share new ideas, though, sometimes “send” or “publish” is clicked by the elephant instead of the rider.
Recently a high school client of mine, angry that her new school was unwilling to accept the accommodations that she firmly believes had made it possible for her to overcome years of school struggles, did just that. Just past “late o’clock”, when her rider was ruminating into email the school counselor had sent to the girl’s mother, the student-elephant clicked “send”. Oooops. Was the elephant sorry? Not at first.
Our rider is a highly capable “inner lawyer”, according to Haidt. Instead of realizing the error and its potential for even more bad feelings, this student quickly began building the case for why the school counselor deserved the e-thrashing so carefully scripted by her rider (and sent by that pesky elephant). When her parents required her to compose and send an apology, the ensuing debate about how to word it was heated by the big, angry feelings that the tiny rider could not control.
Training the Rider
Training the rider is very important. Fortunately, we have many strengths and strategies that make this possible. Here are some of my suggestions.
- If you have ever trained a willful puppy, you may have needed a professional trainer to help you through rough patches. You, too, may benefit from having a trainer (coach) because as any trainer will tell you, the animal learns what is taught. Beware the law of unintended consequences. You need to be skilled, confident and consistent in your approach.
- A coach can help you learn to like and understand the elephant you’ve got, but without letting that mean your rider overlooks its bad behavior. Does your elephant tend toward impulsivity? Competition? Angry outbursts? Entitlement? Is it whiny? Does it overindulge? Look down on other elephants? Fail to accept its role in trouble and therefore its resolution? Your coach can help you become more accurate about your contribution to difficult situations, and help you figure out what you can change, and what you cannot.
- Develop self-regulation skills needed to “think before you do”. A coach can help you make a list of tactics and identify strengths you will employ in the service of your SMART goals. Ask your coach or another rider (what we call an “Aristotelian Friend” in Positive Psychology) to help you stay on track.
- Keep track of what works so that you can replicate tactics when faced with similar challenges. This develops self-efficacy which is essential to the confidence and consistency you will need.
- Find other elephants in your herd who support your growth and collaborate with them. Even the best plans for self-improvement can be led astray by other wayward elephants, especially ones with overly active inner lawyers.
- Don’t ruminate (especially into email!). Ruminators are more likely to develop depression than non-ruminators. Work to develop relationships among those whose positive emotion can be contagious and uplifting for you, too.
- Beware the inner lawyer. If you find yourself “protesting too much”, stop defending and find a positive approach. You can practice yoga, relaxation breathing, or ABCDE.
Choong, S. (2007). People in Little Boxes on Wheels. Positive Psychology News. Demonstrates the ABCDE approach to resilience.
Fisher, S. (2007). Tell Me Something Good: Applying Validated Positive Psychology Interventions. Positive Psychology News.
Fisher, S. (2008). Practice Does Make Perfect: The Value of Deliberate Practice. Positive Psychology News. Illustrates the idea of SMART goals.
Fisher, S. (2008). Positive Psychology – It’s So Much More Than Happiness!. Positive Psychology News.
Haidt, J. (2006). The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. New York: Basic Books.