There’s nothing wrong with you for thinking something unpleasant. You get overwhelmed or outmatched; you slip up at a critical moment. It happens.
The problem, says Ed Tseng, a tennis pro and life coach based in Lawrenceville, is not that bad things happen; it’s not even that we acknowledge that we’re imperfect. It’s that we punish ourselves for letting in bad thoughts to begin with. We’re not very nice to ourselves when it comes to our self-assessments. And we’ve been conditioned by years of motivational-speech cheerleading to see nothing but the positive. So when a problem comes along, we don’t know what to do with it.
Tseng’s advice? Acknowledge it. Then get over it. Because you’re freaking yourself out.
“I have a lot of clients who are perfectionists,” Tseng says. “But perfectionism can be as bad as being a slacker.”
This need to always be perfect, he says, handcuffs people in business and sports all the time, and it tends to get them at a sinister moment — the beginning. A lot of people, he says, feel as if they’re going to blow it somehow when they walk up and start talking to people for the first time. They get so inside their heads, they don’t see that the easiest way to break the ice is to just, well, break it.
Tseng and Janie Hermann, public programming librarian at the Princeton Public Library, will host “Icebreaker Night,” a free program to learn ways to break the ice and get conversations started, on Tuesday, January 3, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Princeton Public Library. Visit www.princetonlibrary.org.
People, Tseng says, are more forgiving and patient than some fear. “I believe our default is compassion,” he says. For evidence, he points to children, of which he has two (ages 3 years and 18 months).
Kids, he says, are resilient. They bounce back from heartbreak. They forgive themselves and each other immediately, then get back to their lives. As adults, though, we ask too much of ourselves, and sometimes of others. We wallow in what went wrong, and we talk ourselves into or out of all kinds of matters. It’s not that we don’t have that innate ability to get through rough times, it’s that we obfuscate it as we get older.
Most of this, Tseng says, is fear. We’re afraid of looking stupid, of failing. So afraid, in fact, that we don’t even want to recognize that we’re overwhelmed sometimes, or that we’re afraid. So those thoughts get in and fester. They’re a lot like having bits of food in your teeth after lunch. Pretend they’re not there and things can get pretty bad. But if you acknowledge that there’s a piece of spinach in your teeth and you just floss and brush, problem solved.
There’s nothing wrong with having a bad thought for a moment, Tseng says. But “you can’t concentrate on it. It’s an illusion in my own mind. I don’t even try to push it away.” He says the best thing to do with a thought is to take the old New England weather advice: If you don’t like it, give it 15 minutes.
“Sometimes inaction is the right action,” he says. When you’re in a low mood, it’s not the time to open your mouth, it’s the time to catch your breath and let the bad thoughts in your head throw their little tantrum, and then you’ll be in a better place.
If this sounds like uninspired advice, consider something Tseng asks many of his clients: Do you remember the last 10 thoughts you had? You can’t, don’t bother trying. You don’t even remember the exact wording of this paragraph up to this point, and you’re in the process of reading it. Tseng’s point is that memory flushes quickly; our thoughts change all the time. If a minor something was irritating you 10 minutes ago and you told it to take a hike nine-and-a-half minutes ago, you’re probably not even going to remember having been annoyed. So don’t give bad thoughts a key to your head. Meet them at the door and politely tell them they can’t stay here.
When it comes to meeting people, especially in a business setting, Tseng says, people are afraid of being awkward in front of new people. But being a little awkward in conversations is fine, as long as you’re you. And while it might not be the most profoundly original piece of advice to give, “be yourself” is an old standard for a reason, he says. People can sense when you’re being phony. They can sense when you’re being nice just to get karma on your side.
Here’s the thing about karma, though. Karma knows when you’re screwing around with it and it rewards you accordingly. Tseng believes you get back what you put out, the so-called Law of Reciprocity. “It’s always better to add value to others first,” he says. “But it has to be genuine.”
For Tseng, communication is largely the same thing as sports. “When you’re communicating, you’re being a team player,” he says. The old TEAM acronym of “together everybody achieves more” only holds true with a Part B: “As long as there’s a total effort from all members.” And in a conversation, that’s you and whoever you’re talking with.
So what does an introvert say when approaching someone?
“I get asked that question all the time,” Tseng says. “And you know what, I don’t know.”
For Tseng, it’s not about the exact words, it’s about being yourself, remember? So don’t get bogged down in a script. Just let the moment evolve, and you might be surprised to find yourself in the middle of an actual conversation.
That Tseng teaches his mental toughness perspectives to athletes and businesspeople alike is a far cry from where he had expected to be when he was younger. His parents were big on his getting good grades in school, and his father, a computer professional, wanted him to be in the field as well. Tseng tried. And failed out of Rider twice in the attempt.
After that second time, he says, he took stock of what he really wanted, and he wanted to play tennis. He also wanted to work in the tennis world. So he contacted the U.S. Tennis Association to find out how to go about it, and the agency directed him to Michigan. There Tseng attended Ferris State University and got his bachelor’s in marketing and professional tennis management. He came back to New Jersey to strike out on his own and he’s not looked back at a life in computers since.
Being around so many driven, professional-grade types (or at least those who aspire to be such), Tseng has learned the value of letting go of the bad serve, the dumb mistake, the realization that the other guy is bigger, faster, or stronger. It’s all in your head, he says. And it’s not real.
“I still get stressed,” he says. “It’s just that now I recognize that it’s just a feeling. My feelings are my internal compass, and if I’m in a low mood, that’s not the time to trust my thinking.”