Take the following example of how we empower negative vs positive thoughts in everyday life.
You bump into a friend, Mary, on your way into the coffee shop.
‘I like you hair,’ she smiles.
‘Oh, thanks,’ you say. ‘I had it cut yesterday.’
‘Looks great!’ Mary confirms.
For a few moments, waiting in the line at the counter, you bask in the glow of the compliment. Before your thoughts turn back to whatever it was you were dwelling on before. Your friend’s compliment falls out of your cognitive loop. You are back mulling over the work project, the property transaction, the things you need to pick up for dinner tonight.
You may remember the encounter with your friend again later. The nice thing she said about your hair. But it’s not a big deal. Just one of those fleeting exchanges that happen in everyday life. Of all the things going on in your world, a few words about your hair are, frankly, of no great consequence.
On a different day, going into the same coffee shop, bumping into the same friend, the exchange goes like this, ‘What happened to your hair?’ Mary looks startled.
‘I had it cut yesterday,’ you say.
‘Oh dear,’ Mary’s voice is sympathetic.
Waiting in the line at the counter, you feel quite taken aback. Irritated. Wounded. It’s not that bad is it? You seek out a reflective surface to check your hair, bending to catch your forehead and hair in the chrome frame of the muffin display. The style is a bit different from your usual. Perhaps it takes a bit of getting used to. But nothing like Mary was making out.
The more you think about the exchange, the angrier you become. You spent a lot of time and money on your hair yesterday. What gives Mary the right to sit in judgement? It’s not like she’s some kind of coiffure expert. She’s had the same boring hairdo for the past 20 years.
Come to think of it, this is not the first time Mary has made cutting remarks about your appearance. Several years ago you were shocked when she wrinkled her nose up at that purple shirt. Okay, purple isn’t really your colour, but it’s the way she did it! So unnecessary! Some people just have no tact. It’s not like you asked her for her opinion-
‘How can I help you?’ Behind the counter, the cashier is ready to take your order. Without realising it, you have just spent the past five minutes smouldering over Mary’s momentary reaction.
You place your order and go to find a seat. Out comes your phone. You had planned to check your emails, but before the app has even opened, in your thoughts you’re back to Mary.
I could go on with the commentary that may, hypothetically, be running through your head for the rest of your now-unhappy time at the coffee shop. A commentary that may continue to intrude into your thoughts for the rest of the day, reprised, elaborated upon, and perhaps even indignantly discussed with others.
But you get the point. And the truth of the matter is that most of us are just the same. Offered a positive remark or the equivalent negative remark, we will usually empower the negative to a hugely disproportionate degree. Instead of allowing Mary’s negative observation the same few moments of reflection we would have given her positive observation, before moving on cognitively speaking, we feel strangely compelled to empower it with a great amount of energy and attention. To dissect, examine, return and magnify it.
And because thoughts lead to feelings, the more we think about it, the worse we feel, till we have whipped ourselves up into a real lather of indignation, or depression, or anxiety, depending on our particular area of expertise in the negativity department.
All the while we’re doing this, we will have no doubt as to the cause. Tactless Mary. If only she’d kept her mouth shut, we wouldn’t be experiencing all this. But that’s just like her isn’t it? Shooting her mouth off without any regard for the consequences, just like the time she …
What we tend not to be so good at is to recognise that we, in fact, are the authors of our own misery. Mary is not there forcing us to think about her negative remark. We could have given it just the same weight we did her positive one, in the first scenario. Rather, it is we who are the ones who empower the negative. Who make the choice to be emotionally derailed by a chance encounter.
We don’t realise it’s a choice, of course, unless we’re aware that we have the option of doing something different. That something is being mindful of our own cognition and practicing the discipline of acknowledging, accepting and letting go of negative thoughts – and the negative feelings that follow in their wake.
“Don’t be your thoughts and feelings. Be the awareness of your thoughts and feelings” says the wise Eckhart Tolle. When we take a step back from the theatre stage of our mind, when we are able to watch the antics of our mind with greater objectivity, that’s when we’re able to start letting go of the negative thoughts – and patterns of thought – that afflict us.
The alternative to empowering negative thoughts is not trying to suppress them, but letting them go. The technique to do this is best practised in meditation. Once we get used to the habit, we can deploy it more effectively in daily life, when we encounter the tactless Marys in our world.
I have recorded an 11 minute introduction to ‘mind watching mind’ meditation, as well as a guided 10 minute ‘mind watching mind’ meditation, which you can get free of charge. Just go to the Home page of this website and click the ‘Free Downloads’ button. You’ll find a few other free goodies there too.
By the way … do you really like your hair like that?!
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