The “Wow” Factor

            Several years ago, a student introduced me to her family, which included her little brother, Hank, who was about five. When I said, “Hi, Hank,” he replied, “What’s your favorite word?” Kids. Ya gotta love ‘em. Surprisingly, however, – to me at least – without any thought, I just blurted out, “Wow. My favorite word is wow.” I guess he didn’t expect an answer because he just turned around and said, “Daddy, when are we leaving?” Great tonic for my ego! Thanks, Hank. Later that day I found myself wondering why my brain pulled that word out of a hat. The more I thought about it, the more I realized it was true. So often in my life, I find myself fascinated, surprised, shocked, or even bewildered, by someone or some event, and my usual first reaction is, “Wow.”

I think “Wow” is an indication that I am involved in an event; the event has affected me personally and I am reacting accordingly. To some extent, I guess I go through life in “Wow” mode, and – for better or worse – live and interact with the life events that unfold around me. “Wow” makes me want to enjoy and appreciate, analyze and understand an event, and resolve discrepancies between that event and my reactions. I suppose I want to be able to use the event to inspire improvement in my own life.

            Believe it or not – you might even mutter an incredulous “Wow” when you read my next comments – just the other day, right out of the blue, my brain threw me a connection between “Wow” and good coping. Really. Imagine this scenario playing out with a guy we’ll call Ken. Seems Ken got into an argument with Ray, one of his work colleagues. For the rest of the day, and into a restless sleep, Ken dwelled on the argument and didn’t know how to approach Ray the next day. “Wow,” Ken thought, “what is going on here? I never obsess over disagreements like this, conflicts with others, confrontations. What’s different here? Why is it affecting me so?”

            Ken’s “wow” is showing the first step in coping: Acceptance. Then he asks, “What’s going on? Why am I reacting differently to my argument with Ray than I normally do? These questions show he is seeking accountability from himself, the second step in effective coping with stress. There’s no doubt that Ken will probably talk with Ray about their disagreement; he will probe his attitudes toward Ray and try to discover any triggers in their disagreement that produced his atypical reactions to the disagreement. The point is, the “wow factor” will encourage Ken to formulate a plan of action – the third coping step – to resolve his stress. Right down the line, “Wow” fosters healthy coping reactions.

            OK, “wow” is good. Well, what happens when there’s no “Wow,” no concern on Ken’s part for why he is responding in a peculiar way? In this case, there is no acceptance, and no accountability. Ken’s likely conclusion is that Ray is an idiot for disagreeing; he will simply deny any unusual reaction on his part, and conclude that Ray is wrong and his opinions must be ignored. Without “Wow,” Ken’s self-absorbed denial and avoidance cast Ray as an enemy, and then Ken must find allies in the workplace who agree with him about Ray, and thus help Ken justify his rejection of Ray as incompetent. Ken will need dependency on others to maintain stability, prevent a loss of personal control, and thwart any descent into depression and self-destructiveness. Without “Wow,” Ken is nothing more than a fed-up cynic.

            What’s the moral of my story? Add “Wow” to your coping arsenal. Doing so will help you experience and appreciate life’s curve calls. “Wow” will help you see life not as threatening, but as challenging in its unpredictability – a vision that will help you be proactive and confident in dealing with unexpected and stressful events; “Wow” will help you understand that when life makes you uncomfortable, you must work to improve yourself, not deny and run away.

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