I’ll bet you cashmoney that when it comes to feeling crappy, 80% of the time, you’re the culprit.
Just kidding. This isn’t about fault. It is however, about self-sabotage, and I’m going to show you how cut that out. Ain’t nobody got time for that.
Perception Is Everything
As we go about our day, we’re constantly acting based on myriad unconscious, unexamined, and often limiting beliefs that we developed in response to past experiences. It’s crucial that our brains are able to make connections and act on them automatically. We evolved for this because it kept our prehistoric ancestors out of trouble. But the same mechanism that made us run from lions and towards berries can now create seriously dysfunctional beliefs in modern life. And these beliefs, whether conscious or not, trigger emotions. When we act from that place of distorted thinking and heightened feels, it’s like putting on a pair of warped glasses, getting hopped up on strange pills and running around town swinging at invisible monsters.
If we can start cleaning those glasses, we can act based on clear thinking that doesn’t cause unnecessary suffering to ourself or others.
The Root Of Our Suffering
What happens behind-the-scenes when we experience an emotion? It’s a pretty straightforward series of events, but with powerful implications. Here’s the process in a nutshell:
- An event occurs.
- Your brain responds with a thought that triggers the release of chemicals in the body.
- You perceive the resulting state as an emotion (and/or physical sensation).
At that point, we usually respond automatically based on whatever emotion we’re feeling. If the event is negatively triggering, we freak out. We yell. We hurt people. We say yes when we mean no. We make up false stories about the future and waste time and energy worrying. We avoid. We give up. We get drunk and overspend. We give ourselves ulcers and fall into depression. We feel powerless.
It’s clear that if we want an emotional environment that fosters our most powerful selves, we must either change our circumstances or change our thoughts.
There is, of course, a ton of validity in changing our circumstances. Toxic environments do exist, and it’s reasonable to leave a job, a relationship, or a locale in order to eliminate problematic influences. However, in many cases, focusing solely on changing our circumstances can be little more than a band-aid to a disease. It’s up to us to lovingly check ourselves in each stressful situation and decide whether our pain is coming from our situation or our beliefs about the situation.
Side note: Everyone will have their own bar for this distinction. It’s entirely possible that your thinking is causing you as much or more pain than the objective reality of your circumstances, but you haven’t yet, or don’t want to, change your perspective. In cases like this, you are completely justified in removing yourself from a situation, even if you still want to work on challenging your limiting beliefs. The goal here is not to be some kind of zen superhero that’s never bothered by anything. The goal is to start taking back your power by recognizing just how much your thoughts influence your wellbeing.
How To Take Your Power Back
There are a number of thought leaders that have tackled this topic, including the Buddha himself, but for sake of brevity, I’m going to focus on Byron Katie. Her major contribution to the field is called The Work, a process of inquiry into your own thinking. Her book Loving What Is details both her process and the ultimate goal (being at peace with reality – ie: getting out of your own way). I’ve found her methodology to be immensely revealing and rewarding, and I’ve simplified it to the point where I can ask myself a couple questions in the moment and get a quick turnaround on the benefits.
I highly encourage you to read Loving What Is or watching a few of her videos, because she encourages a particular order of operations. I’ve found the shortcut to be so useful though, that I’d rather pass on that information as a quick start, and you can get more into her work if you want to dive deeper and be more thorough.
So in summary, The Work includes four questions. You write down the thought that’s bothering you. Make sure you acknowledge both the thought and the story you’re telling about that thought. Once you have that, you throw four questions at it. Here’s an example exercise:
Thought: “Jamila never calls me, which means that she doesn’t like me.”
Question 1: Is it true?
Question 2: Can you absolutely know it’s true (can you read minds?)
Question 3: How do I react when I think that thought? (How do I feel, what do I do, etc)
Question 4: Who would you be without that thought? (How would I feel, what would I do, if I didn’t have this belief)
It’s crucial to recognize where you choose to add meaning to objective reality – your interpretation of a situation is your story. The fact that a friend of yours rarely calls you may have zero impact on the quality of your relationship. When you hang out, you have amazing times together, and it’s clear that they enjoy spending time with you. But if you have an unexamined belief that “good friends call each other”, you have created something to suffer about if this expectation is not met. It’s so crucial in these moments to ask yourself, “if I didn’t have this belief, would there actually be anything to suffer about?” That’s question 4 by the way.
And that’s my shortcut. I always just go straight to Question 4: “Who would I be without this thought?”
Life from here on out is just a steady process of ditching beliefs that no longer serve you. Beliefs that make you angry, that create insecurity, or judgement. Beliefs that hold you back from your goals. Beliefs that cause suffering to others. Beliefs that day in and day out, limit your power and potential and bring negativity into your life.
Fuck that, right? So I’ll say again that this isn’t necessarily an easy process. Some beliefs, once revealed under the light of rational scrutiny, will disappear immediately. Others are deeply ingrained in past experiences, past trauma, or other beliefs and needs in your life and those are going to be a bit sticky.
Jealousy is always one of the best examples I can think of. Almost everyone experiences it at some point, and in order to deal with it, we put chains on ourselves and walk on egg-shells for our partners. Let me break your brain for a moment in case you haven’t given this much thought yet. Imagine a scenario: You’re in a monogamous relationship. Your partner comments on a passing stranger, smiling and saying how attractive they were. What, objectively, is problematic about this situation? The relationship is not under threat. Someone’s existence just made your partner happy. The passerby has not changed your partner’s opinion of you one iota. Objectively, this is pretty much a win-win situation. Someone feels good! But of course, you’re hurt or pissed, and what you’re unconsciously responding to are beliefs like, “it’s wrong for a coupled person to find someone else attractive”, or “she won’t find me attractive if she finds someone else attractive”. Most likely your deeply held fear that “I am unattractive and unlovable” is being triggered by something quite unrelated.
Put those up against the four questions and see what happens.
I know it’s hard. I haven’t become the Absolute Lord And Master of own thoughts yet, either. And I still have a TON of limiting beliefs about myself. But the effort I’ve put in so far has given me the awareness to catch a lie I’m telling myself, the ability to challenge that thought, and the faith that the process will ultimately lead to some level of progress, sometimes with incredible results. Liberation is attainable, but some patience and mental weight-lifting is required.