Prosilience #11: What Creates Impact?
Some challenges feel more disruptive than others.
In an earlier post I outlined the Challenge Map, a way of envisioning the range of planned and unanticipated challenges we encounter in life. As new challenges arise, some feel more disruptive than others—and this disruption can increase the level of energy it takes to address them. Here are three factors that can affect the impact of a challenge1:
The Expectation Gap
The Capability Gap
The Threat Factor
The Expectation Gap
The first thing that influences impact is the size of the gap between your expectations and what you actually experience. Some challenges represent minor disruptions to your expectations, while others require you to completely reconstruct your thinking.
For example, if you have worked at a company for 15 years and assumed you would be there until retirement, getting laid off would likely have a much higher impact on you than on someone who had been there for a couple of years and was already planning to look for another job.
Your brain likes to make sense of things. It continually creates and updates a picture of your world, noticing patterns and building expectations about how things should be. Your brain doesn’t expect everything to stay stable, but it does expect the movement to be predictable. When you encounter a new situation and it is consistent with what you expected, things are fine. But if something unexpected happens, your brain experiences a disruption. The gap between expectations (how you imagined or wanted the world to be) and perceptions (what you experience in reality) becomes something you need to deal with.
Small disruptions—those that are easily resolved—do not typically create a negative impact. For example, most humor is based on a disruption in expectations. When someone tells a joke, it’s typically the unexpected element that makes it funny. You need a certain amount of novelty, unpredictability, and challenge in your life to make things interesting—if everything were perfectly predictable you would be bored very quickly. In addition, small disruptions can provide the opportunity for learning and growth.
However, if you experience a larger disruption, and you are not able to resolve it relatively quickly, your brain starts to engage in efforts to figure out what’s going on. Until you close the gap between your expectations (your mental model of how things should be) and your perceptions (what you are actually experiencing), you will continue to feel uncomfortable.
Surprises have the highest potential for disruption, but even things you can see coming have the potential to turn your world upside down and create large expectation gaps. For example, you may see on the weather report that there is a large storm coming, but still find yourself disrupted when your power goes out and your street begins to flood with rain, because you hadn’t fully envisioned what might happen as a result of the storm.
In addition, you can experience disruption even if what’s happening is positive. People don’t typically think of good changes as disruptive, but sometimes they require some adjustment. Here are some examples:
Amanda just had a baby. Although her son is the light of her life, she now gets less sleep, which, in turn, affects the energy she can put into her work, her marriage, and her hobbies.
Athena made the basketball team at her high school. She is really excited about this, but is now having to get used to the daily practices, and the impact this change has had on her friendships with people who are not on the team.
Ron recovered from a serious illness that he thought would probably kill him. He now realizes that he might live for another twenty years or so, and it’s shaken up his map of the world. He is currently figuring out what he wants to do with the unexpected years ahead.
The Capability Gap
The second thing that influences impact is the extent to which you believe you have the capability to deal with the challenge. No matter how large a challenge is, it will seem much larger if you have no idea what to do or don’t think you have what it takes.
The capability gap is a major factor in determining whether a challenge feels fun or scary. If you encounter a challenge that is a good match for your skills and experience, it usually feels enjoyable. You feel interested and stimulated because you see the problem as being well within your capability to manage or resolve. This has been described as a state of “flow.” One of the reasons computer games and puzzles are so engaging is that they provide a stimulating level of challenge that can increase as your skills develop.
However, challenges that greatly exceed your perceived capabilities can be extremely uncomfortable. You often experience these challenges as adversity.
The Threat Factor
The third thing that affects impact is the degree to which the disruption represents a threat to things that are highly important to you. If a challenge poses a threat to something you value, it will have greater impact. Most threat evaluation is automatic. Your brain makes judgments very quickly when it detects a source of potential harm or danger. Such things as loud noises, snakes and other slithery creatures, and angry facial expressions can trigger responses even before you are consciously aware of them. As you might expect, humans tend to avoid things that can cause physical pain and harm. However, there are other sources of threat—such as the loss of an important friendship— that affect the brain in similar ways and lead to similar patterns of thinking and behavior.
In his book Your Brain at Work, David Rock introduces some of the things your brain is likely to experience as threatening:
Loss of status (feeling disrespected or put down)
Lack of certainty (being unclear about what will happen in the future)
Change in autonomy (being less able to decide your own course of action)
Harm to relationships (feeling less connected with family, friends, and others)
Lack of fairness (feeling that you are not receiving equitable treatment)
In addition to these relatively universal sources of disruption, many people have phobias—things that scare them even though there is usually not a lot of actual risk involved. These can include fear of heights, enclosed spaces, speaking in public, spiders, the number 13, and lots of other things. If you perceive something to be risky or scary, your brain will act as though it really is dangerous, even if it’s not.
Other Things that Affect Impact
1. Total impact is generally higher for challenges that last longer and are imposed rather than chosen. Things that are forced on people and last a long time, such as abuse or captivity, are generally agreed to be more “awful” than things that last a shorter time and are voluntary in nature.
2. The specific situation a person is in may influence the degree of impact of a particular challenge. For example, waking up with the flu might be hugely disruptive if it happens the day before a big event, like a wedding, but less so if it happens during a time when there are no critical events scheduled for a few days.
3. Two people may experience the same challenge very differently based on their personal circumstances. For example, a person who has plentiful financial resources will likely see a small car accident as a minor issue, while someone who cannot easily afford a car repair may have a huge struggle to figure out how to manage this setback.
4. The level of impact of a particular challenge can change over time. For instance, an injury that involves breaking a bone can create a fairly large initial impact in terms of pain, frustration, and physical limitation. Over time, impact is likely to drop and continue at a lower level until things are fully back to normal.
5. In major challenges, the impact is usually not just one big hit, but the combined effects of the many large and small challenges that unfold over time. For example, when a loved one dies, there is typically a big impact up front that combines the emotional loss with the mental and physical work of planning a funeral and sorting through personal effects. As time goes on, there is a series of additional small challenges—picking up the phone to call them and realizing they are no longer there, remembering them on a birthday or anniversary, and moving through a holiday season without them.
Why Impact Matters
Paying attention to the potential or actual impact of challenges can be helpful to you in a number of ways:
1. The higher the impact of a given challenge, the more energy it will take to address it. If you can see a high-impact challenge coming, you can work on building up your energy to be ready for it.
2. If you are facing multiple challenges at once, they each will take some of your energy. By taking an inventory of your challenges and understanding how much impact each will have, you may be able to plan things so you don’t feel overwhelmed with too much going on at once.
3. By understanding the things that create impact, you may be able to reduce the stress you experience. For example, you may be able to increase your skills and knowledge to reduce the capability gap. You may be able to talk to other people who have been through a similar challenge to gain knowledge and reduce the expectation gap. You may find that you can identify potential threats to things you value and take steps to minimize the risk.
What recent challenges have created a high level of impact on you? What contributed to this impact? How might you use this understanding of impact to manage your own energy?
I hope you have enjoyed this issue of the Prosilience newsletter! See you in two weeks. —Linda
This post is an edited excerpt from Prosilience: Building Your Resilience for a Turbulent World.