I feel the urge to preface this article with the long story of how I got here, but I would rather get to the point. Instead, let’s start somewhere in the middle.
Last night I tried to edit some video. I say that I tried, even though I actually succeeded. It went very slowly. The reason? I had dusted off my late-2014 Mac Mini, a machine I only use for this purpose any more. The poor thing is just slow.
I already expected to spend upwards of an hour merely preparing the machine to do work again. I upgraded the operating system. And a bunch of applications in the App Store. I ran
brew upgrade. I upgraded the development tools. I finally opened Screenflow 7, then realized that I would probably benefit from upgrading to Screenflow 9. Indeed, this took over an hour and, quite frankly, I didn’t mind it at all. I listened to Gem Radio: New Wave for a while, then decided that I was in the mind for Talking Heads, so I summoned them on Spotify. I was doing just fine.
Eventually, thankfully, I began editing video. I did the usual: I created a
git repository for my new editing project. I gathered the raw video. I opened Screenflow. And I started editing.
And I started noticing that almost every move I made conjured up an old friend.
At first I found it somewhat endearing. After about 45 minutes of editing about 5 minutes of video, I stopped finding it endearing.
Instead, I found myself screaming.
I want to make this clear: I’m not exaggerating for effect. I was screaming at the top of my lungs. I was using every part of the English language in finding particularly salient adjectives and adverbs to describe the machine, the software, the people who produced them, and the situation as a whole. As I was doing this, I even fooled myself into believing that I was making myself feeling better, even though research tells me that I was almost certainly making things worse for myself. I began to feel an emotional downward spiral.
Fortunately, this time, I noticed it after only about 10 minutes.
And then something wonderful happened. I used a simple tool that I’d recently learned about. This tool almost immediately led me to become calmer: I felt less agitated, I began breathing more deeply, I felt the tension drain from my shoulders, and most importantly, I felt my emotional state soften. Within a minute, I was ready to re-engage the work I was doing.
I want to make something else clear: this did not make me suddenly content with how slowly I was working. I still resented having to move slowly. I resented maybe needing to buy a new Mac Mini. I had been able to do much more intense video editing seven years ago on an even weaker machine without nearly this level of disruption. I resented the general pattern of software devouring the hardware resources at its disposal. I sure as hell didn’t want to be forced to buy an M1 Mac, because I’d heard that some of Telestream’s other products don’t even run on them yet. The last thing I want is to spend money in a way that doesn’t even solve the problem I need it to solve.
Even so, in just a minute, I found that I’d changed my relationship to the situation. Yes, I very strongly disliked it. (I didn’t hate it, but I came really quite close.) Yes, this project would take much longer than I’d hoped, which meant delaying some other things that I wanted to do, including some things designed to result directly in profit. In spite of that, when I saw that beach ball every few moves, I managed to react by merely shaking my head in annoyance, rather than screaming invectives at the top of my lungs at the uncaring machine in front of me.
And I managed to edit about 20 minutes’ worth of a video before I needed to stop for the night.
Some people already know how to regulate their emotions. I have long envied them their skill. I didn’t have it, even though I’d spent years trying to learn. I probably still don’t really “have” it, but I have some ideas and some tools that will help me break free of this pattern of acutely venting frustration by yelling, screaming, throwing things, and other types of violent outburst. If you find yourself seized by this behavioral pattern, then perhaps these ideas and tools will help you.
Since I live primarily in my mind, I tend to respond well to ideas: when I understand something, I find it easier to adopt as a way of being. Understanding helps me feel confident that I can foresee what will happen.
Also, I like to collect tricks. I’ve been drawn to that ever since I first heard Alistair Cockburn refer to microtechniques in a talk he gave at XP/Agile Universe 2003. I collect microtechniques and use repetition and chunking to turn microtechniques into helpful habits.
Consequently, I notice that I can change my behavior when I combine a cohesive set of ideas with a microtechnique or two to practise.
Just last week I collected an idea to complete a cohesive set. I also learned a microtechnique that helped me handle this emotional outburst. I really couldn’t believe how quickly it had worked, when everything else I’d tried in the past had failed.
I find this exciting. I look forward to the next time I need them.
First, the ideas:
- Although screaming (and especially swearing) reduces the apparent sensations of physical pain, venting emotional pain in this way does the opposite: it causes us to cling to the emotional pain. Instead, we need to let it go and move on.
- When under stress, we often retreat into coping stances, which dominate our behavior and perceptions in the moment. We often become subject to our coping stances, meaning that we don’t even notice when they have taken us over. It feels like the water that we swim in.
- Labeling a negative emotion reduces its impact on us.
I have combined these ideas in a way that helps me understand what’s going on inside me when I start venting frustration and anger, as I did when I screamed at my Mac Mini. I’ve retreated into blaming, the coping stance that I learned in childhood to adopt as a protection mechanism. The situation was attacking me by impeding my progress and threatening my livelihood, so I protected myself by retreating into my blaming stance.
And it happened before I become consciously aware that I was doing it. Behold the awesome power of the coping stance!
It took me about 10 minutes to notice what I was doing. I wasn’t merely screaming at the Mac Mini, but very specifically I’d been blaming it. I was blaming everybody and everything! The Mac Mini, Screenflow, Telestream, Apple, programmers in general, the entire software industry, capitalism! I blamed them all! I really put on a virtuoso performance of blaming!
And by labeling the negative emotion, its impact started to recede. I chuckled at myself for just how banal it seemed: I’m sitting there, blaming an uncaring machine for stealing money from me. I felt compassion for myself in that moment for feeling a threat to my financial well-being and I even felt the faintest tinge of compassion for the machine. The situation was not its fault.
This helped, but it didn’t magically cause the negative emotions to disappear. I was still trying to edit video. I had over an hour of video left to edit. I wanted it done. I wanted to sleep well that night. I had other things to do. But I felt differently about the situation, which made it easier for me to remember what to do next: inhabit the coping stance.
So I started pointing at the machine and saying in a firm voice, “It’s all your fault.”
No, really. And yes, I’m glad nobody else was around at the moment to see me do it.
And it worked.
I continued pointing at the machine, staring at it intently, and saying in a raised voice, “It’s all your fault.” Not screaming, but not backing down.
I noticed two things in that moment:
- I chuckled at the absurdity of the statement: the machine clearly didn’t bear any responsibility for my predicament.
- Each time I said, “It’s all your fault”, I felt it and I meant it. I believed it. It was real for me.
And then I noticed the obvious contradiction and laughed.
I got up out of my seat and walked into the next room, with the picture of me in my blaming stance running through my mind. I could feel how much the anger had receded. I laughed some more at the absurdity of blaming all these people and concepts and things. This gave me the space to breathe more deeply. After a minute or so, this positive feedback loop of calm resulted in a kind of equanimity.
Let me emphasize: I still really didn’t like the situation. None of this made the underlying predicament go away. It changed how I felt about my predicament and gave me an opportunity to make a choice about what to do. In particular, I decided these things:
- I’m not buying a Mac Mini today. (Indeed, my wife Sarah asked me, whether I bought one or not, to wait at least until the next day to decide.)
- I still want to edit this video.
- I don’t want to learn Kdenlive today; that would probably slow me down even more.
- Screenflow remains my best option to perform this job.
- This Mac Mini remains the best machine in the house on which to use Screenflow.
So I decided that I would continue and that it would take as long as it takes to finish.
And then I got back to work.
- Labeling negative emotions reduces their impact.
- Recognizing the coping stance into which you’ve retreated in the moment provides a way to label the negative emotion.
- Venting frustration as anger tends to cause us to cling to that anger, rather than letting it go.
- Inhabiting the coping stance provides a way to help you feel the corresponding feelings in a way that promotes letting them go sooner.
I encourage you to learn about coping stances and to explore the ones that you turn to in times of stress. I learned about this aspect of Virginia Satir’s work in a workshop entitled “Discovering Your Path to Self”, which I attended in January and February 2021. I’ve been using some of Satir’s ideas in my mentoring and coaching work, but in this workshop I gained a richer understanding of them. I had the chance to experiment with them to gain a deeper understanding of my own behavior in a space designed for this kind of mutual exploration. I’d been waiting two years to attend a workshop like this and I finally got my opportunity in 2021.
It has already made a difference for me. I feel excited to share these new tools with my clients.
I discovered, not long after this incident happened, that I had stumbled upon a known incompatibility between Zoom and Screenflow. It seems that Zoom, by default, exports recordings in a format that Screenflow doesn’t entirely handle correctly. (I prefer not to learn the details here.) I learned this when I went crawling around Telestream’s support forum and ran across some similar experiences to mine. After processing my Zoom meeting recording with Handbrake and trying some random settings, I got a clip that Screenflow seemed able to work with. And the spinning beachball had mostly disappeared. If only I had known sooner!
And therein lies a deeper problem: I can’t imagine how I could have learned about this problem before I experienced the symptoms. Given my context of using Screenflow 9 for the first time and having lived through several new major releases of software with glaring stability problems, I can forgive myself to jumping to the conclusion that this was a not-entirely-unexpected failure of Screenflow 9. To really fix the problem requires telling Zoom to use a more “standard” way of compressing their recordings, even though that results in a larger file. (At least, that’s how I understand it so far. Again, I hope not to need to learn the details any time soon.)
I mention this, not to provide support for Screenflow 9, but to point out an assumption I made that led me to make even more assumptions and eventually to experience the rich emotions that so completely took me over and caused me to start screaming. Of course, Screenflow 9 doesn’t work! It’s a new major version! New major versions routinely have stupid problems! Stakeholders routinely pressure the programmers to ship features before they’ve been tested! These companies routinely force their customer testing activities on us!
The worst thing? If I really couldn’t have done anything differently to avoid this experience—if the combination of the situation and my prior experiences could only have ever led me to this moment—then I couldn’t really blame anyone for the outcome, could I? It was never not going to happen.
Irony. I love it.
Emma Byrne, “The Science of Why Swearing Reduces Pain”. Swearing and screaming tend to go hand in hand, at least for me.
Nick Wignall, “The Secret Life of Anger”. An article which refers to the Bushman study as part of an overall discussion of the nature of anger.
Marc Evers, Nynke Fokma, and Willem van den Ende, “Satir Coping Stances”. It doesn’t surprise me at all to find two of my fellow “old XP folks” involved in writing this article. It provides a solid introduction to the concept, so that you can start applying it immediately to your own behavior.
Lea Winerman, “Talking the Pain Away”. Commentary on Matthew Lieberman’s 2003 study (published in Science (Vol. 302, No. 5643, pages 290-292), which used fMRI to observe the phenomenon.