“There is no way that this winter is ever going to end as long as this groundhog keeps seeing his shadow. I don’t see any other way out. He’s got to be stopped. And I have to stop him.”
– Phil Connors, Groundhog Day (1993)
Working on the frontlines of healthcare as an operating room nurse for more than 25 years has allowed me to observe firsthand how stress impacts behavior. Pursuing Stand-up Comedy for years also taught me the importance of looking for the humor in everyday situations. These divergent career experiences have demonstrated to me that our ability to manage well when we are stressed or upset involves a conscious choice – if we choose to be mindful about our choices!
Today, as a motivational humorist, I have the privilege of connecting with audiences in healthcare, union, government, and corporate organizations throughout North America. I get a huge “lift” sharing insights on humour and mindfulness as tools for maintaining a positive mindset, boosting self esteem and upping the quality of our relationships. My work, and the people I get to know doing the work, keeps me engaged and fills my tank.
So, for anyone who has not seen Groundhog Day, it is the story of Phil Conners, a cynical TV weatherman who is resentful and upset about being assigned to go on location to Punxsutawney, PA to report on the annual Groundhog Day festivities. Phil is stuck in a rut and takes it out by being miserable to everyone he crosses paths with. A freak snowstorm leaves Phil stuck in town overnight, and he wakes in the morning to find himself re-living Groundhog Day all over again. Phil has not choice but to repeat the same mindless cycle again and again, until…well you may want to watch the movie!
Groundhog Day took on added relevance during the pandemic when we collectively found ourselves in the biggest rut of all. The challenges we faced as a society were beyond disruptive – especially for parents of young families, for the elderly and health compromised, and for people serving in essential services. But, despite all the months of isolation, monotony and 24/7 negative news we rose to the challenge and made it through. So, congratulations and well done!
Which brings me to brain science. Brain science tells us that how we allocate our attention depends on the interaction between the amygdala (the so called ‘reptilian brain’) and our more recently evolved neo-cortex. Our reptilian brain evolved to ensure survival and is wired to trigger an adrenalin surge when we perceive a threat – whether imagined or real. The circuitry in this part of the brain remains much the same as it was for our ancestors. It is involuntary, and reactive. It is powerful, and seductive. So, beware!
Meanwhile, the more recently evolved upper brain layer is the source of our voluntary attention. It helps us avoid distraction, focus on a task, and to think logically. Using this part of the brain comes down to a choice and requires discipline. This is where the good stuff happens and is where we want to spend as much time as possible. And, we can practice techniques to ensure that this area of our brain is our ‘Go To’ when things get dodgy.
This brings me to a simple visual concept for building mindful awareness about how we are behaving at any given moment in relation to a single, horizontal line. Its simplicity is powerful in that, at any moment, there is only one mode you can operate from:
When we are in “Below the Line” mode, we tend to be closed, negative and cast a dark shadow all around. We resort to sarcasm, denial, excuses, defensiveness, and blame. We are in “Full Phil” mode.
When we are operating “Above the Line” we are open, positive and brighten the room. We are accountable, responsible and we willingly take ownership of the situation.
The great thing about this model, is that it is dynamic. So, when we react emotionally with our reptilian brain and start to slither into the darkness “Below the Line” we can always catch ourselves. We can choose to engage our upper brain cognitive skills and move back “Above the Line” to where things are much sunnier!
Groundhog Day used the comic genius of Bill Murray to teach us some important lessons on the choices about how we direct our mental energy. Being mindful and choosing an “Above the Line” perspective can empower meaningful changes in our mindset and behaviour and help climb out of any dark rut we may get stuck in.
Mindful awareness eventually took Phil to a better tomorrow for himself and others. How about you?