By: Elizabeth Louis
I have an investigative way of thinking. At least, that’s what the aptitude and vocational tests tell me. Apparently, I’d make a great lawyer, seeing as this is what my career tests tell me to become.
I agree as well. I’m always trying to investigate how and why I did what I did, which has been a tremendous benefit to my clients and my academic journey in psychology.
It’s natural for me to be curious and reflective and retrace my steps on how I did something. Since I reflect often and discuss how to improve, it’s natural to examine a weakness and compare it to what I do well.
I learned in my twenties that most of life is a “copy and paste” phenomenon. If you do something well, you can usually examine your approach, mindset, language, and perspective to what you do well and copy and paste the fundamentals to a weakness. It’s not always as easy or straightforward, but it works often.
Ironically, I didn’t know what I was doing was setting myself up for success until I started my ADHD Certification.
In this certification training, I learned the best question to ask yourself for growth. This question is especially true if you are impulsive, forgetful, or struggle with ADHD. The best part is this question will help you improve your executive functioning skills and grow your self-awareness. And you’re also improving your brain health because reflection and discussion are highly beneficial to the brain and mind.
The question is, How Exactly Did I Do That?
It’s such a simple question for such an enormous impact.
How to use the question:
Let’s say you want to figure out why you’re always late or how you do something well. You’d want to ask yourself this question and then, with curiosity and an open mind, examine all the mental and physical things you do to get the result you get. It may take a few attempts before your awareness is such that you can effectively reflect. That’s okay. Keep at it.
If you don’t do this, remember you’re developing a new skill, which means using a new side of your brain.
Let’s use an example.
Let’s say you constantly show up 7-10 minutes late to events. In this case, ask yourself, HOW EXACTLY DO I DO THIS?
Then allow yourself to retrace your mental steps.
It’s one thing to show up here and there late, but it’s another thing to do it 90% of the time.
Some additional questions to help you retrace your mental steps are…
- What do I say to myself?
- What’s the image I see in my mind’s eye when it’s time to leave?
- Am I setting an alert or reminder?
- How long does it take to get to the destination?
- What is the excuse or narration bias I’m telling myself?
- Where am I lying to myself?
- What are the distractions that get in the way?
- Where’s my time management off?
Here’s another example: When Sally fights with her husband, she gets anxious and afraid. Now her husband doesn’t abuse her in any form, but he can be quite short in a fight triggering her of her past traumas.
Sally had a traumatic childhood and was diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in her twenties. When she is in a heated argument with her spouse, her limbic system reminds her of her past situations, alerting her that she’s not safe. The belief that she’s unsafe makes her frantic, anxious, impulsive, and reactive.
Sally prefers to be calm, in control of herself, and respond strategically during a heated argument with her spouse. Ironically, she’s like this when helping others navigate a crisis. As a kid, she learned how to be quite fluid, stoic, and strategic when her family was in a crisis because of the consistent crises her family found themselves in.
Here’s what Sally would do to achieve peace and responsiveness in a heated fight.
After she finishes navigating a crisis with someone and everyone is safe, she would ask herself (she can also reflect on a past one), “How Exactly Did I Do That?”
She would think, how was I calm and strategic instead of anxious and stressed?
First, she may realize that she felt safe and unworried, whereas, with her husband, she feels unsafe (not because she doesn’t feel safe with her husband but because her past experiences bombard her perception). Whereas she has confidence and positive experiences navigating a crisis, she doesn’t have positive experiences in a heated argument because her father used to beat her if she did not do what he wanted.
The big difference here is when she’s in a crisis, she’s not worried about being a victim but is used to taking control and leading her family successfully out of the crisis. So, her goal is to learn how to take control of herself by protecting her inner child and responding as her adult self instead of allowing her inner child to take control of the situation. She has to protect and lead herself.
The first thing she could do in a heated fight with her husband is remind herself that she is safe and find all the reasons to support her belief that she’s safe. For instance, she could remind herself of all the times when her husband has put her safety above his and why he loves her and vows to protect her. She would also intentionally want to remind her mind that her husband is not her father. Her husband has never hurt her.
Since Sally does a great job leading other people, she could lead the little girl inside of her to safety by taking a second and reminding herself no one is attacking her and that her husband is upset, and that together they can find a solution.
Next, since most people don’t do well with aggressive or hostile communication, she can control her tone and words and lean into vulnerability. Such action can create a mirroring effect, where her husband will mirror her. She could even say, “Honey, I love you. I know you’re upset. Let’s take a time out or breather and come back when we can talk this through instead of yelling at each other.”
Now, since she wants to get better at staying in control of her emotions when in a heated argument with her husband, she may also intentionally reflect on past conflicts, strategically examining and asking herself questions that would allow her to demonstrate peace, self-regulation, and love she would prefer to show in a fight.
For instance, when she snapped in defense, she could ask herself what is another way of seeing that comment other than attack. What was my husband feeling, and how could I turn towards him instead of away?
What was I terrified of at that moment when he said that?
What could I have said to diffuse the situation instead of my escalating remark?
What emotion was I feeling (fear, anger, surprise, happy, disgust, or sad), and do I normally avoid this feeling? If so, what does welcoming and radically accepting this feeling look like? How can I befriend the sensation instead of reacting?
What can I think or do to calm myself down and regulate my emotions?
Then she may even reflect on a situation where she was heated and imagine herself being calm and collected. Those questions would be:
- What feeling do I need to feel to stay emotionally regulated?
- What actions am I taking to keep a more peaceful environment? Not interrupting, listening, showing empathy, etc.
- What do I need to remember not to personalize the situation? Ironically most arguments and conflicts are a result of selfish ambitions.
- What does being humble and putting my husband first look like?
The key here is when you’re reflecting you want to edit out the behaviors you are displeased with and add in the behaviors you want to do.
Start to get in the habit of examining your actions with the question, HOW EXACTLY DID I JUST DO THIS?
If you ask this question daily for a week, you will be surprised on how much your self-awareness grows.