Monday, October 19, 2015

Here's One Thing Dr. Phil Really Got Right

Nicolette Michele Johnson
by Nicolette Michele Johnson, Associate Director of Kelley School's Graduate Career Services

In working with students, this is the time of year when some students are elated about the full-time job offers they receive while some others are at the other end of the happiness spectrum, sometimes facing disappointment due to not having an offer in hand as quickly as they had hoped.

I’ve found that, in my interactions with them, I feel their pain, at least temporarily but definitely acutely. In one instance, I was a bit hesitant to tell a student one key principle I have learned to embrace over the years because the sources of the principle felt a little hokey.

Shorten the “mourning curve”

I clearly remember the principle from watching an episode of the Dr. Phil show over a decade ago. Even though I can find meaning in almost anything including seemingly empty reality shows (which you know if you’ve read any of my prior posts,) I haven't kept track of the Dr. Phil shows in recent years, especially due to the fact that the constant wading through interpersonal drama stresses me out even when I’m only observing it from afar (a further indication that my initial college-bound goal of becoming a psychiatrist 20-plus years ago wasn’t quite a fit for me.)

What Dr. Phil said that stood out to me was that people often mourn the loss of "what could have been” instead of “what was.” He had said it to an individual who was clinging to romantic relationship that wasn’t good for her. Her thought of “what could have been” was an idealized loving relationship that resembles a fairy tale and the reality of “what was” was the equivalent of an episode of “The Jerry Springer” show.

That quickly reinforced in me that mourning the loss of “what was” instead of “what could have been” lessens the disappointment swiftly and significantly. Of course, “what was” was reality of the situation while “what could have been” was an unattainable, idealized dream of what the person wished for. Often the question "And what exactly am I upset about?" followed by "Does it even make sense that I'm upset about the loss of this?" surfaces, especially when a bit of logic and reasoning kicks in.

In one of my own situations, when I made a mental list of “what was,” I not only shortened my “mourning curve,” but also I was grateful because I immediately knew that “what was” was not great (and yes, I had a long and obscene list of not great) and the loss of which was not worthy of being upset about. Instead, I was grateful for being away from that situation, with a future that seemed more peaceful and promising.

I see this application in work scenarios all the time. Whenever I encounter someone who is facing a trying career situation (perhaps not receiving a job offer or a promotion, facing a layoff, etc.) I often ask (myself on their behalf, but also the person sometimes): Are you mourning the loss of “what was” or “what could have been?”

More often than not, the person is mourning the loss of “what could have been,” that idealized scenario that encompasses what the person wishes the situation was. The “what was” was often a situation that he or she didn’t really want or enjoy anyway. Just the other day I heard “but I didn’t like it there” and “I had no intention of going back there” from individuals disappointed that they weren't invited back to places they didn't love.

Reflecting on “what was” instead of “what could have been” is often a reminder that the disappointment need not be as big as we sometimes make it out to be. “What was” may not be great, but “what will be” is much more promising.

“Here's One Thing Dr. Phil Really Got Right” was originally published on Linkedin Pulse on October 93, 2015.


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