The primary cause of unhappiness is never the situation but your thoughts about it. – Eckhart Tolle
January was a hugely transformational month for me, I learnt so much about limiting beliefs I’ve had, how my ego works, and what’s been holding me back.
I dived straight into personal development and it was my number one priority. However, over the last week, I haven’t prioritised it and old habits and ways of thinking and behaving have been coming back. Such as getting angry and upset with people when things don’t go the way I want them to, or events and people not being the way I ‘want’ them to be.
Negative thought patterns spiralled and I also started obsessing and fantasizing over someone who I’m romantically attracted to (a nasty addiction I’m trying to kick!) and spent quite a few hours on social media comparing myself and my body/ life/career/achievements to others. I started feeling angry, upset, frustrated, stressed, annoyed, let down and sad. I felt physically exhausted – and ending up having to spend a day in bed to rest as my glands had swollen up.
In particular, I was angry at a housemate who organised a house clean on a particular evening – even though I wanted to do something else that evening – and then two of them, including the one who organised it, didn’t end up cleaning that night anyway. A doctor’s appointment was cancelled and there weren’t any available times to see another doctor before I leave London in just over a weeks time, so I got extremely frustrated and was unkind to the woman on the phone to whom I was speaking. And lastly, I had my leaving dinner in London and three, who I would consider really good friends, didn’t come. I felt really upset and hurt by this – that day, evening and the majority of the following next day.
I reached out to a friend about how I was feeling hurt about being let down by friends who didn’t come to my dinner, and she shared some advice which was that everyone justifies things in their own mind – and everything thinks they are right, but who is right? Which got me thinking, is there even a right/wrong, a good/bad?
This brought me back to some interesting learnings I had about the ego in January. In the Landmark Forum, they teach you about ‘the little voice inside your head’ – i.e. the ego. They say that humans by nature are cynical and the voice in our head works in two ways – to look good or avoid looking bad.
The ego works in ways of thinking and behaving (saying and doing) that are negative to be: right /wrong, dominate/avoid domination, justify yourself / invalidate others, and win/loose. These all result in avoiding responsibility in our life. And the cost of thinking and behaving these ways are losing love/affinity, vitality/well-being, Self-expression, satisfaction/fulfilment – everything that gives us the feeling of aliveness!
It can be easy sometimes to imagine things are black and white. A creative workbook book by Lee Crutchley, called How to be Happy (or at least less sad), highlights common thinking distortions and says, “Everyone is prone to distortions in thinking, but when you’re depressed or anxious these distortions become much more exaggerated.” – (aka me that week!).
Some common ones are:
- Black and white thinking – thinking things are either good or bad, with no middle ground. Solution: practice thinking about the grey areas between the two absolutes.
- Catastrophising – massively exaggerating the importance of events, and how terrible things are going to be. Solution: try put your thoughts in perspective. Things are rarely as important as you let yourself believe, and things rarely go as wrong as you imagine.
- Emotional reasoning – believing feelings to be hard evidence of the way things are. When you feel sad, anxious or stressed it can give you a warped view of reality. Solution: Try to think about the facts of the situation. Do they support your feelings?
- Fortune telling – making predictions about things that you have no evidence for, such as how people think, what will happen, or what someone will say to you. Solution: You can never predict any of those things, no matter how hard you try. Remind yourself that your guess might, and probably will, be wrong.
- Labelling – attaching definite and general labels such as ‘useless’ or ‘failure’ to things that are far too complex to be categories. Solution: Try to avoid using these rigid levels and instead celebrate complexities.
- Living by fixed rules – living by very right statements and using words like ‘should’, ‘must’, and ‘can’t’. The more rigid the statements are the more disappointed and angry you will feel. Solution: Try to challenge rigid thinking by using more fluid words such as ‘ wish to’, ‘but’, and ‘would like’.
- Low frustration tolerance – assuming things that are merely annoying are intolerable or unbearable. You exaggerate how bad a situation is and minimise your ability to cope. Solution: try to remind yourself that just because something is annoying it doesn’t mean that you can’t handle it.
- Negative focus – focusing on the negatives; ignoring, downplaying, or misinterpreting the positives of a situation. You obsess about your bad points and dismiss your good points. Solution: if you do something good, practice celebrating it and accepting the praise and positive feedback.
- Personalising – you take responsibility and blame for everything even if it has nothing to do with you. Solution: remind yourself that you are not the centre of the universe, and that’s a good thing!
All of the situations that I choose to let upset or frustrate me, turned out to be absolutely fine – as most things do! By choosing these negative ways of thinking, I spiralled into negative thinking in other areas of my life, missed out on the fullness and amazingness of what was happening in the present moment, and felt physically exhausted and drained – all for nothing.
It’s only a thought, and a thought can be changed – Louise Hay
In the different situations I was: black or white thinking (It’s wrong that these people haven’t come to my leaving dinner), emotional reasoning (I feel upset, frustrated, angry – because I was feeling those emotions I let it cloud the other things in my life, and was believing those feelings to be evidence of the way things were), fortune telling (this person is being really unhelpful on purpose, this person doesn’t care about me), low frustration tolerance (as the week went one more and more things frustrated me that usually wouldn’t), negative focus (focusing on the one ‘unhelpful’ staff member at the doctors, rather than the two helpful ones, feeling angry that I had to come home and clean when I might have wanted to have a chilled evening at home that night anyway plus I needed to do it at some point, and focusing on the people who didn’t come to my leaving dinner, rather than the people who did), and personalising (many of my frustrations with other people actually had nothing to do with me, they had other stuff going on in their life too).
I’m going into the doctor next week, the house is clean, and many of my wonderful friends came to say goodbye – and those who couldn’t make it do care, and will see me another time before I go.
Furthermore, it’s made me realise how easy it is to slip into my ‘old’ ways of thinking, and has made me think about the times I’ve let others down (I’ve done all of the above myself!). It’s also been an opportunity to stop and review everything as I started feeling out of alignment and balance again, so I’m really grateful for these experiences.
Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at the moment. – Eckhart Tolle
I find it so interesting how easy it is to get caught up in distorted thinking and how the ego works.