Choose Your Path

Choosing Your Emotional Path

I sat in a coffee shop with an old school friend last week.
 
He’s smart. Super smart.
 
A professor who researches the effects of various things on the brain, including exercise, in order to understand and prevent dementia and Alzheimer’s.
 
The topic almost always turns to his work, as I’m ever intrigued by what makes humans tick, and also what makes us ‘stop ticking’.
 
We’d already discussed how exercise can treat depression and now the conversation had taken a more philosophical turn.
 
We pondered this question: Is investigating the reason behind negative behaviours beneficial, when you could simply choose to not act in a particular way in the moment? And what makes some people more able to do this than others?
 
Suppose you are stuck in traffic. You hate traffic. You’ve got things to do, people to see!
 
Sitting in traffic makes you frustrated and angry.
 
You don’t like feeling frustrated and angry.
 
So why not CHOOSE, in that moment, to not be frustrated and angry?
 
The situation itself is not causing these negative emotions. I can prove this by showing you someone who remains calm and happy sitting in traffic. The fact they don’t react in the same way as you means the situation is irrelevant. You are making yourself feel bad.
 
A therapist may look into your childhood, at the relationship with your parents, your upbringing, and the first seven years of your life. They may proclaim “Ah it’s clear! You having to sit in a car and not being able to move subconsciously reminds you of your lack of momentum in your life, and the anger is a manifestation of the fraught relationship with your mother who you believe held you back!”.
 
The therapists diagnosis may or may not be true. But does it matter?
 
Does knowing this help you move on? Does it aid you in times of stress?
 
How are some people able to, in the very moment of stress, acknowledge their negative emotions, watch them, and let them subside without completely being taken over?
 
What enables some people to deal with tough situations so easily, whilst others crumble or react badly?
 
These were the questions my friend and I pondered in Costa. And neither of use had definitive answers.
 
Has one group suffered very little trauma in their lives whilst the others have? I suspect this is partially it, but not the full story. Obviously a traumatic experience is going to shape how you react to or get triggered by future situations. And I don’t want to belittle this point in any way – some people have suffered horrific incidents which will need guidance from a therapist in order to assist, and they may never fully recover. Therapists provide an absolutely vital role here and do amazing work.
 
But what about those of us who haven’t experienced what would qualify as needing therapy.
 
My childhood and upbringing was idilic in comparison to some stories I’ve heard. There were a few hiccups along the way which knocked my confidence, but I really can’t complain.
 
And yet I still developed negative feelings about myself, which led to me not having as rich a social and dating life as I would have loved in my twenties.
 
I’ve met some wonderfully happy people who had it rough growing up, and some miserable people who were born with a silver spoon in their mouth. For that reason, I don’t think your life so far is the sole determinant of how you act now.
 
Instead, I believe how you INTERPRET what has happened to you is FUNDAMENTAL to your emotional state in situations.
 
The reason I started this website is because I didn’t like who I used to be.
 
I didn’t like the fact I hated socialising.
 
I didn’t like feeling I had nothing to offer the world.
 
I didn’t like feeling as though I was an outsider.
 
And I hated feeling unattractive and that I would never find someone who loved me.
 
So I began to question these beliefs. What made these believes true? What separated me from someone who was confident in social situations? Was I really so different?
 
I began to wonder if believing I was unattractive was the reason I was unattractive.
 
I began to wonder if I was an outsider because I kept telling myself I was an outsider.
 
What if instead of feeling lonely I chose to feel loved.
 
What if instead of believing I had nothing to offer I decided I did have plenty to offer.
 
I didn’t need a magic pill or hours of therapy. I simply learned to be aware of my thoughts, and replace the negative ones with positive ones.
 
Is it that easy? Yes and no.
 
The technique is easy and effective. Remembering to use it is not.
 
Changing your long term habits takes time. The more entrenched your negative beliefs about yourself and the world are, the longer it will take to change them.
 
That said, change can also be rapid. In the space of a few months you can become less shy and more confident simply by telling yourself you are a confident person.
 
This isn’t just mental gymnastics. Positive thoughts really do rewire your neural circuitry, programming your brain to be on the lookout for experiences which validate what you are telling yourself.
 
The ‘fake it ’til you make it’ philosophy is one I believe in wholeheartedly. Faking it definitely helps you make it!
 
If you tell yourself you are a shy person, your brain will find ways to confirm it to you, discounting all the times you were not shy. If you tell yourself you’re a confident person, you’ll begin to forget about the times you behaved in a shy manner and focus more on the times you were confident.
 
It’s up to you to jump into the positive or negative spiral.
 
Think of it like this. You and a friend go to the theatre. When discussing what you liked about the show afterwards, you might say you enjoyed the multitude of scenes and how realistic the set looked, whilst your friend describes the music used and how incredible an actor the lead character was.
 
You both saw the same play, yet you each filtered it’s contents through the lenses of your beliefs and interests. You noticed the scenery because you worked backstage in a school production once and have an engineering mind. They liked the music because they play the piano.
 
In ten years time if you were to discuss the play again, your memories of it would differ wildly.
 
My point is this. You can’t choose what happens to you. But you can choose what lens to see the events through.
 
If you are shy, find social situations difficult, struggle to get dates, have issues in relationships, are unhappy or believe “bad things always happen to me”, it may be time to change your lenses.
 
And the fastest way is to first become aware of what your current lenses are by monitoring more closely how you are thinking when negative emotions arise. Then you have a choice. To let those emotions control you or let them wash over you like a wave before you return to the natural state of calm and peace which I believe is our default state.
 
Becoming more self-aware and having the ability to monitor your thought processes is a super power I believe everyone needs.
 
The world would be a far kinder, calmer and happier place.

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