I mentioned on Facebook last week about how beliefs (B) shape our consequence (C) to actions/activating events (A). Whilst it is easy to recognise this in other people, it is often much less easy to acknowledge that the reason we are feeling or behaving in a certain way is down to us (i.e. our beliefs) than to external things. But when we do recognise that we can control our beliefs and therefore our reactions, it is a beautiful and wonderful thing.
For instance, when we're stuck in traffic and may be late for an important event, our beliefs could be:
This is unfair and it shouldn't be happening to me
I'm going to get fired/shouted out/look foolish
So our reaction, our consequences, are negative (getting stressed, honking other drivers, verbally abusing people in a way we wouldn't face to face, imagining disastrous consequences). But if we look at those beliefs, in a rational, non-emotive way, we can check them for validity. Is it really unfair that you are stuck in traffic? Do you believe that life is always fair or do random, inconvenient things happen to people all the time? Sometimes we benefit from that (hey, I just found a £5 blowing about the car park) and sometimes we don't (hey, I could have sworn I had a £5 in my jacket pocket....). How realistic is our belief that we will be fired for being late? Maybe it is realistic that we will get shouted out for being late (I don't know where you work. Maybe that's how they roll?) But is it the worst thing that could happen to us? And will worrying about that make it any easier or better?
Martin Seligman (the father of Positive Psychology) conducted work on the factors that made people optimistic or pessimistic. He wrote that optimistic people viewed events differently on three dimensions:
permanence - they viewed bad events as temporary
pervasiveness - bad events don't affect other unrelated areas
personalisation - they don't blame themselves for bad events.
We live in a society that often leads us to characterise events as pervasive. 'Bad things come in threes'. 'It never rains but it pours'. We actively encourage ourselves to look for bad things happening and then treat them as connected events. (I got stuck at every single red light on the way in, there was a learner driver on the roundabout, the milk in the office fridge had gone off so I couldn't even have a decent cuppa and my 3 o'clock meeting got shifted to half 5. What a crap day.) One negative event can put us in a place where we are actively looking for bad events and then we can believe that it is all part of a 'bad day'. But we can turn that on its head. My current favourite country artist, Luke Combs, has a great song called 'When it rains, it pours'. In it, his girlfriend leaves him so he goes for a drive to clear his mind. At a gas station, he buys a scratch card, wins money, then wins a radio call in, wins a raffle, gets the last spot in the Hooters parking lot, the waitress leaves her number and picks up on the first ring and, as the chorus says, he never has to see his ex-future-mother-in-law anymore, when it rains, it pours. None of those events are connected, but he claims the only logical reason these things happen is because his girlfriend left him. Let's leave aside the questionable use of logic in that sentiment, but we have probably all done something similar in reverse. One bad thing can seem to lead to another and another. Part of that is because we are looking for further bad things and then because we have a belief that all these bad things are pervasive and permanent, then we react in a completely different way than we would if we viewed them as single unrelated events, that have no permanence and no personalisation.
"The remarkable thing is we have a choice every day regarding the attitude we will embrace for that day. We cannot change our past...we cannot change the fact that people will act in a certain way. We cannot change the inevitable. The only thing we can do is play on the one string we have, and that is our attitude...I am convinced that life is 10% what happens to me and 90% how I react to it. And so it is with you...we are in charge of our attitudes.”
― Charles R. Swindoll
You probably know people who you think have an 'easy' life. Bad things never seem to happen to them or when they do they get over it with Astonishing Rapidity (to quote A. A. Milne). It can even seem quite annoying to you if you are an Eyore and they are a Tigger. But the truth is, it is unlikely that they don't have similar negative events or obstacles to surmount. They merely approach them and react to them differently.
But how? Well, I'm not saying it is easy, because it's not. We're talking about potentially overcoming a lifetime of beliefs and systems of thinking. But the next time you are stuck in traffic, imagining all the awful scenarios that are going to happen because you are late and making yourself feel more stressed;
Notice what you are doing. What words or phrases are you using?
Ask yourself how likely your worst scenario is.
Put that worst scenario in perspective. Think of the absolute worst thing happening in the world. That is 100. On that scale, where is your worst scenario?
No matter how stressed you are making yourself feel, ask yourself if you will remember this event next week, next month, next year? Is there any permanence to it? And if you think the answer to that is yes, is it because you are creating that permanence by rehashing the situation to no good effect? Often we vent about a bad situation (the traffic, Sandra, was horrendous! Forty minutes to go 3 miles!) but what does that actually give us? Is it more beneficial than taking a couple of minutes to ourselves to find a calm space and put that event in the past?
I like to use the traffic scenario because it is likely that you will encounter it (substitute commuting if you're more of a rail or bus user), but also because if you can conquer these small bad events and stop them taking over your day, you can use exactly the same tools with bigger events more readily. The more you practice, the better you will get at identifying your unhelpful beliefs and changing them to something that works for you.