Making Up Movies
Saturday, March 12, 2022
Continuing from my previous article on managing yourself, another classic trap that impedes personal growth is endlessly playing self-made movies in your mind and believing in those plots. Let me describe a particular situation.
One evening, I got a call from an ex-colleague out of the blue. We’ve not spoken for years. He wanted to talk, and I said go on. He sounded upset and beaten. For the next ten to fifteen minutes, he gave me a crude sketch of what was going on at work with his current manager, the new manager, some details about how he felt about them, and some feelings of betrayal.
It took a while for me to piece together what was happening from his perspective. Initially, he felt liked by his then-current manager and built a good rapport. He had access to that manager, which allowed him to work on good projects. That manager’s org grew, and now he was asked to report to one of his peers and move to the skip-level. That felt like a rebuke to him. He was concerned about losing access and being pushed back. “What wrongs did I do? Why is my manager punishing me like this?” were his recurring questions.
It was clear from his voice that he had been deeply in distress for several weeks. He seemed depressed and picked up drinking. I could hear the stress in his voice.
After about 30 minutes into the conversation, he became calmer. Let me present the pivotal moment of our discussion as I recall.
(after several minutes of me probing to understand)
Me: It sounds like you’ve been directing, acting, and living in a movie.
Him: What? Movie?
Me: The film you’ve been acting and directing in your mind.
Me: Yes, the same film where your manager is the villain, and you’re the victim. He is kicking you and punching you, and you’re hurting.
Me: You know that you have the power to get out of that movie and make a different one to play in your head?
Him: Now I see what you’re saying. Do you think I imagine all this?
Me: Most likely. Do you agree that your manager may not even know he is in your movie?
Me: And he may be directing and acting in a different film right now in which you don’t even exist.
Him: Yes, that’s possible.
Me: So, how about you stop making the movie you’re currently making and choose to make some other movie where you’re not a victim but a hero, where you imagine that things are happening around you and not to you?
Him: I see.
We then talked about alternatives to his current movie to recognize that he could control nothing but his perception of reality and his actions. He subsequently joined my coaching sessions, and we worked on some improvements.
Here is another familiar movie plot.
Sometimes, you want to have a crucial conversation with your manager or another influential colleague. It could be about a promotion, scope of work, or something of importance. You replay what you will say in your mind several times. You rehearse. You brood over. It’s yet another movie you’re acting in and directing. In the end, that meeting may not happen, may move around, or it may not go like the way you had imagined. This is just wasted mental energy.
Instead of replaying, write down what you want to say, and close the book until you’re about to meet that person. If you feel it is urgent, find a way to get it over with. Call that person on the phone, or slack them. Clarify your assumptions. Talk to others about what you’re thinking. By replaying what you’re going to say, again and again, in your mind, you’re just taxing your brain. Don’t do it.
What is sad about this pattern is how common it is. Why makeup such movies? Why ruminate in those stories and waste energy and time? Ancient philosophies have established that we make up much of our social reality. Cognitive scientists, too, have found the same. Mindfulness starts with minimizing such replays. The trick is to become aware, quickly, and pivot to do what’s in your control right now.