Sunday, December 26, 2010

Be Happy – Be Sad; The Choice is Yours

It’s Christmas, so we’re bound to hear it – that mommy-ish admonition from those weary of the seemingly endless grind of the season and the complaints we never fail to exhale when it mashes us. “Be happy – be sad. The choice is yours.” One of my tweeps just tweeted that, and added, “choose wisely” as a warning, or maybe as an afterthought.

That particular sentiment has been proselytized – er, I mean “said” – many times, by people from all walks of life, and in countless ways. “Only you can make yourself feel inferior.” “What you think becomes reality.” “Don’t worry; be happy.”

But is that true? Do we really have the power to control our emotions, or can we learn how? Or are we instead destined to be naught more than the eternal victims of all those ups and downs punctuating our lives?

Now, I am necessarily leaving out a discussion of those peopling the ends of the spectrum, including those who don’t have the capacity to control their emotions at all, or the Dalai Lama, who sits on the far side, and likely meditates for hours every day in his quest for yet more means to be content.

What I am attempting to discuss is what happens to the majority of us, and what, if anything, we can do about it.

I think we can all agree that we’re human, and that humans have brains. I think we can agree that when we perceive stimuli, our brains provide a response to it. We see a raging bear barreling through the trees, growing larger with every leap, and the fear that crushes our chest is not something we decide is the most judicious emotion to feel.

I won’t wax terribly philosophical, but I think you catch my drift. We don’t, as a rule, have a choice in our initial reactions to the things that happen to us. It's biology. Stimulus – response is a well-documented fact that can be observed in brains of insects to animals and in us as well. What we can do, what we can learn to do, is to not let that initial reaction be the end – the last word.

Children learn how to make sense of the world through self talk (see, e.g., this).  Any parent knows that 2- to 6-year-olds spend a lot of time talking, describing, ordering, dictating. A great deal of that is self talk, and as children age, that talk sinks inward to become a running, silent, internal narrative of their lives – a walking, breathing story. We adults are no different, but it’s likely been so long since you thought about what you were telling yourself that you no longer hear the words.

You have to change those words, my friend, if you want to change how you see the world, and how you feel about all of the stuff in it. It’s easiest to start with the extremes because they’re nearest the surface. For example, what do you say to yourself when you make a colossal mistake in front of a crowd, or your boss?

“Oh my God. You stupid idiot. I cannot believe you just did that. Stupid, stupid, stupid!”

Sound familiar?

Now imagine how that would affect someone else if you said those words to them right after they made the same mistake. Can you imagine the look in their eyes? Would they ever forget it? It is no different for you, even though it’s you telling yourself. In fact, it’s probably even more powerful.

Again: it’s that internal dialogue, and it is a running dialogue, that we have with ourselves that shapes our perception of each scene of our lives and all the events in it, that makes meanings, and colors between all the lines.

Now imagine that same mistake, but instead of labeling yourself an “idiot,” you instead told yourself, “Oh my gosh. I feel so embarrassed. I wish I hadn’t done that, but I did try my hardest. I really did. I didn’t mean to do that, but it’s all right. I know it’s going to be all right.”

Now, of course, if you make a big mistake, you’re going to feel icky about it. I don’t think it’s possible for a normal human being not to. But the degree to which you denigrate yourself is going to dictate how terrible you feel, and for how long, and it’s going to determine whether that event becomes a powerful, shameful one, and that is not something I imagine any of us want.

Changing your internal dialogue – the story you tell yourself – is a big task, but it bears mouthwatering fruit. To start, carry a notebook and a pen close at hand for two days. Make a tick every time you tell yourself something negative. I’ll bet you lunch that you will be shocked at how many ticks you rack up before noon the first day, and by the end of the second, you’ll have gotten over your shock, and will have learned how to turn up the voice you speak to yourself in, and then you can stop some of those things you’re saying, and not just about yourself.

“Fucking idiot can’t find his turn signal?”
“Maybe you could wear the entire bottle of perfume next time?”
“I am such a clutz.”

These are the holidays, friends. It’s the time we resolve to make the next year into something better. Let me make a suggestion: I think this year the best gifts you can give yourself are a healthy dose of self-awareness and a stocking full of compassion.  You can’t control the world, but how you feel about it, at least to a degree, really can be your choice.

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