It’s a common saying that if something isn’t documented it didn’t happen.
In nearly every profession the need to turn our experience into an objective artifact is fundamental. It’s how bankers, doctors, lawyers, and educators justify their efforts. It’s how artists, architects, and advertisers share ideas. It’s how the past and the steady flow of change can be turned into something more permanent and predictable.
A large part of our identity is related to the information we collect about ourselves. Every day we record how much we spend, how much we eat, how much we do. We keep track of changes, patterns, how things get better, and how things get worse.
In other words, we are what we measure. It’s how we convince ourselves that what we do is worth doing, that our lives have a purpose, that chaos can be controlled.
But it also raises the question… if you are what you measure, can you change who you are by measuring something else?
So many families come to me concerned about the frequency and intensity of conflict in their home and in their relationships. The first thing I do is listen to their stories. They talk about a fight they had, or a moment of severe anxiety. They tell me about the trauma they endured long ago, and the memories that came with it.
And when they are ready I ask them about what happened in between. We start to measure the peace they experienced between the fights, between the panic attacks, between the painful memories. We talk about any good thing that happened during the calm between the storms. We talk about how the storms need the calm in order to be storms, and how there has always been peace hiding in their pain.
This isn’t just pretty talk either. Researchers at the University of Chicago give evidence that what we measure makes a profound difference in how we succeed in making positive changes. Students who tracked the frequency of negative behaviors were far more likely to feel like failures than those who tracked the positive behaviors between them.
The same works for families in crisis. Don’t measure the number of fights you had this week. Measure how long you can go before the next one erupts. Spend less time worrying about what causes conflict and more time learning what you are already doing to prevent it.
Recognize that you can change your identity when you no longer measure the pain and conflict you endure. Work instead on seeing yourself as a person who overcomes adversity and strives to increase the peace.