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Lessons Learned from a NASA Astronaut

Mike Massimino, a NASA astronaut, was sent into space in 2019 on a mission to repair the Hubble Telescope. In preparation for such an undertaking, the team got extensive training, repeating over and over again the steps necessary to perform the task. Every possible scenario and imaginable setback was accounted for and simulated, and after five years of training, dry runs and the development of over one hundred space tools, he was finally launched into space.


Once at the destination, Mike had to perform a spacewalk, the part of the journey he was most worried about. He went through it smoothly, feeling calm and secure. He finally got to the telescope, where the first step was to remove a handrail that was blocking the access panel he was tasked to repair. There were four screws on the handrail. The first 3 came out easily, the fourth didn’t. The tool was moving, but the screw was not, it was stripped. Out of all scenarios they imagined and trained on, this was not one of them.


As Mike realized what was happening and its potential consequences, he went into despair. It had been five years of meticulous training, investment, and a great team working together to make this mission possible, and it was looking like he would be stopped by a stripped screw. As if the pressure was not enough, he blamed himself for it.


Mike thought about the impact that this failed mission would have on the future of the planet and also on his own legacy. How would he face his own kids after such a disaster? So he allowed himself to panic for a few seconds. And then, he pulled himself together and started working with the team to find solutions. After over an hour of failed attempts they figured out a way to move forward: Mike was instructed to yank off the handrail from the telescope. And it worked. It felt like a miracle. Not only did he complete the task, but also the setback that he faced was a life lesson that he carries to this day.


When Mike talks about this episode, he mentions his two big learnings: the first is that when facing adversity or disappointment, you should give yourself 30 seconds to feel your feelings, blame yourself, take time out to throw a tantrum, whatever feels right. And then you pick yourself back up and focus on the task, move on. The second learning was that, no matter how bad a situation is, you should remember that you can always make it worse by letting feelings leak into behavior.

I don’t know if 30 seconds is the right time to feel your feelings across the board, I don’t even know that there is a right length of time for that. What I firmly endorse is the idea that it’s important to feel our feelings and then let them go. And once you are able to do that, you can think straight, become resourceful and create miracles.


Some of us have the tendency to get stuck on the feelings: if we are angry, we get consumed by anger and leak it in every interaction we have, treating others poorly. We become anger itself. Others tend to ignore emotions. Pretend they are not there and keep moving towards a goal. Just shove them under the rug, put on a positive face and stay on task.


I believe there is a happy medium where we allow ourselves to feel the emotions, yet refrain from leaking them onto others and impacting our behavior. In doing so, we can harness those emotions to propel us forward, learn valuable lessons, and grow.


Emotions are an integral part of the human experience, and acknowledging and processing them is essential for our overall well-being. They provide valuable information about our inner state and can serve as signals for our needs, desires, and boundaries. Feeling our feelings allows us to understand ourselves better.


Beneath anger, rage, jealousy, resentment and all those emotions we categorize as “negative”, lies sadness. If my anger stems from not receiving the desired promotion, it may be rooted in the idea that I am being treated unfairly or being undervalued. Recognizing this underlying thought can guide my actions in a manner that leads to a fruitful outcome. In this situation, I can opt to engage in a conversation with management to express my perspective on my achievements and discuss what was lacking to warrant a promotion as opposed to becoming passive aggressive and destroying our relationship.


At the same time, we don’t need to become our emotions and leak them everywhere we go. We can acknowledge and experience our emotions without projecting them onto others. When consumed by anger, we don’t need to become anger itself and carry it wherever we go, further exacerbating the situation. That only feeds into the already challenging state of affairs.


Although most of us are not accustomed to separating our feelings from how we behave, we can train ourselves to get better at that. Our brain is malleable and it can learn new behaviors and habits.


As a mother of two young children, I have plenty of opportunities to do just that. When my kids engage in behaviors that trigger anger or disappointment within me, I make a conscious effort to stop, take a breath, sometimes even a time out, and then interact with them from a place of kindness and curiosity. Does that always work? NO! I sometimes still find myself leaking my feelings into my interactions. And with practice I am progressively becoming better in taking a moment to distinguish between my emotions and how I engage with others so that I can use the interaction to create something positive.


A great tool to support us taking time to feel our feelings while not allowing them to leak onto others is called STOP. It consists of 4 steps:


S for STOP

T for TAKE A BREATH

O for OBSERVE

P for PROCEED


S - STOP

Whenever we feel activated by a situation or person, STOP.

T - TAKE A BREATH

Then take a breath. Just by breathing, we activate our parasympathetic nervous system and start regaining the capacity to think straight, which is impaired when we perceive a threat or feel challenged.

O - OBSERVE

Next we Observe. We can start by directing our focus towards the body which, contrary to common knowledge, carries a lot of our emotions. Studies* show that different emotions tend to increase or decrease the levels of energy in certain parts of the body. For instance, when experiencing anger, one may notice tension in the neck and chest areas. Take a moment to conduct a body scan and notice where there is tension, heat or any other sensations.

Then we can proceed to identify and acknowledge the emotions present within us. By assigning names to our emotions, we naturally reduce their impact on us, embracing the well-known concept of "name it to tame it".

Next, we delve into the investigation of what has triggered a particular emotion. What is it attempting to communicate? What are our underlying needs at that moment?

P- PROCEED

And finally we proceed to take the action that will lead to the result we desire. Even if we are still feeling the emotion, now we are able to think more clearly and choose to act from a neutral place.


So next time you go through a setback, disappointment or failure, make sure you are giving yourself time to feel and process your feelings while not leaking them into your interactions. Go through the STOP process and notice what unfolds. You might be surprised by what you are able to create from adversity. Mike Massimino and his team pulled a miracle together and so can you.


Warmly,

Barbara


* Bodily Maps of Emotion, Nummenmaa et al, 2013

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