Secondhand Life

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I Didn’t Mean To Detach Myself

I misunderstood. I thought that detachment meant to detach from my thoughts and feelings. That was wrong. Now, I believe it means to detach from the perceived outcomes of the thoughts and feelings, not the thoughts and feelings themselves. To feel the feeling and think the thought, but not ascribe any importance to the result.

My analogy of having a guest bedroom in my mind and letting my thoughts and feelings stay there until they choose to leave is incorrect. That is not how to welcome guests. As a matter of fact, my thoughts and feelings are not guests at all. They are me. I should celebrate my happy thoughts and feelings. And I should comfort my sad thoughts and feelings. I should welcome them with open arms, merge with them, experience them, and when they have run their course, hug them and bid them farewell.

I’ve kept my thoughts and feelings once removed, separated from my self. Saying I didn’t trust them is tantamount to saying I didn’t accept them as a part of me. As a result, I’ve been half dead because I’ve prevented a major part of myself from living. This is why my numbness exists and where my passions have gone to slumber and die (see Killing My Feelings).

Treating my thoughts and emotions as unwelcome has separated me from life. All that happens out there needs to be experienced as what happens inside me, as the physical sensations and their accompanying thoughts and feelings. After all, my reality is what I create it to be inside me. By denying my thoughts and emotions, I’ve numbed out reality. I’ve only been partially accepting it and as a result, partially living it.

I’ve taken the wrong detour, gone way down a path I didn’t mean to go down, and ended up with a secondhand life.

Single Core Awareness

In an earlier post, Acceptance: I Think And Feel, Therefore Nothing, I talked about how I learned to observe my feelings and thoughts as they came into being. This implied that there was a separate awareness different from whatever was doing the thinking or feeling.

Currently, I believe that there is only one awareness, one stream of consciousness. That awareness first feels or thinks something, and then switches to examine the result of what it was like to feel or think that something (memory and physical sensations). There aren’t two awarenesses, one doing the experiencing and the other observing the first. It’s just one awareness doing the one (experiencing) and then the other (observing the results of the experience). Similar to how old single CPU, single core computers faked multitasking, the focus of awareness shifts so fast that it appears to be simultaneous.

A single awareness makes the gap in stimulus and response possible. Basically, the experience of feeling or thinking is first broken and then the focus moves to examining the resulting physical sensations in the body and the memory of that emotion or thought. If I get upset during a conversation, I stop feeling upset first, observe that my face is flushed, ponder what could be causing the irritation, and then decide whether to continue the conversation or leave. This timeout takes place in a split second and is a learned behavior.

In the past, my negative emotions and thoughts were short-circuited and weren’t allowed to cause bad behavior. The problem is that I was also prematurely aborting positive feelings and thoughts and never switching back from observing them. The positive emotions and thoughts were never allowed to grow to completion. Both intense hatred and passions were not allowed to come into being.

As a result, my experience of life was shortchanged. Instead of living firsthand, I was stepping back and observing myself living. In effect, I was living a secondhand life.

Just Be, Bad or Good

I want to fully experience my thoughts and feelings. To just be them. Good and bad. But I don’t want to act less than my best because of them. Surprising, I think I know how to do that.

The act of thinking and feeling generates judgments (of the persons and event) and expectations (of outcomes), which when acted upon can lead to adverse behaviors. So, I just have to not attach to the judgments and expectations so they won’t affect my behavior, right? I think I can do that with reframing and anti-expectations.

I’ve been training myself to switch back if I slip into observing mode. Once the feeling or thought died or grew as big as I was willing to allow it to, I used the observer mode to detach from any resulting judgments and expectations. This wasn’t easy to learn to do. I expect to spend the rest of my life practicing this. Over time, I’m hoping to train my awareness to experience an emotion or thought to completion before switching focus, instead of bouncing back and forth between the two modes.

I don’t plan to discriminate and to allow only positive emotions and thoughts to grow (while aborting the negative ones). Perversely, as a feeling dominant, I want to experience both the good and bad. Sometimes the bad can turn out to be good in the long run. And sometimes the good can turn out badly at the end. Life is also perverse.

Acceptance Always

I’ve been thinking about the thoughts, not thinking the thoughts. I’ve been thinking about feeling the feelings, but not feeling them. There is a better way. It involves embracing thoughts and feelings as my self, giving them energy so that they can come to life and run their course, accepting them, celebrating them, forgiving them, sometimes acting on them and other times not, and then letting them go. To never attach or cling to what they may imply. To explore them without any intention to make them stay. Acceptance is the better way.

It doesn’t mean to act out my thoughts and feelings unless I want to. Just because I’m feeling angry, doesn’t mean I should be breaking things or punching walls. And it especially doesn’t mean mistreating and abusing others, physically or emotionally. It’s okay to feel angry, be angry, but not act angry. (Though in rare cases, it may be okay to act angry.)

If you ever accidentally detach yourself, I hope that my post will help you to find your way back.

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Killing My Feelings

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An old friend tells me that I have changed a lot. That I am extremely calm now; whereas years ago, in discussions, I would easily get emotionally agitated. A neighbor asked me recently if I had always been so serene. This didn’t surprise me too much. I tell my friend that I have worked to control myself so that I wouldn’t react emotionally to things. In the past, I’ve allowed myself to act or react based upon strong negative feelings, which led to results that I regretted very much. Now, I don’t. Unfortunately, I admit, it seems that along with the negative low feelings, I’ve also lost the passionate highs. Now I’m just steady most of the time.

Having also explored personality types, my friend asks if my thinking is now dominant or my feeling still is.  I answer that I believe it is neither.  He looks confused.  I explain that I’ve taught myself not to identify with my thoughts or emotions.  I have them, I just try not to attach to them. Just as thoughts can be misleading or wrong, so can feelings.  That’s why I don’t get emotional much anymore.  But there is a downside, because along with my negative feelings, my positive ones are not as strong as in the past. I am not as passionate about things as I was before.

My friend replies that I have vulcanized myself.   That I have killed my feelings. And that Vulcans show no passion because they aren’t driven by emotions. In a way, he is right (albeit, we are talking about fictional beings). My strategies to avoid identifying with my feelings are accomplished by thinking tools such as forgiveness, acceptance, reframing, and anti-expectations. To not attach to my feelings, I use my self-awareness to pause in the gap between emotional stimulus and response long enough to use the thinking tools above. In the past, I was dominated by my emotions; but now, I use thinking to prevent that domination. I have accidentally vulcanized myself.

Why I Divorced My Feelings

If you are an idealist (which includes INFPs like myself), there is a downside. For most idealists, as we get older, we come to realize that we have fallen far short of reaching our ideals and have failed miserably to meet our own high expectations. We tend to get depressed. Some can get cynical, but most get depressed.

In my early thirties, I started getting brief spells of sadness, which I called low energy states. In that state, I didn’t feel motivated to do anything and had zero excitement for the future; everything seemed grey and meaningless. At first, I thought they were burnt-out episodes due to work, but they were different. At work, I was so busy I didn’t have time to experience the low energy spells. But at home, I had all the time to do so. I came to realize that the low energy states were the result of the disconnect between what my subconscious thought I should be doing (saving the world, helping people) and what I was actually doing (helping a business increase profits). Not that working is bad; after all, it does provide a living for myself and my coworkers. It just wasn’t enough.

I guess one could call it an early mid-life crisis. But instead of buying a red sports car, I turned on myself, ruminating on my thoughts and feelings. No matter how much thinking or explorations of feelings I did, I couldn’t find the cause of the low energy state. And so I went around, in an endless cycle, full of sadness, regret, irritation, and finally, anger. At the end, raging against myself and my condition because I didn’t know where to direct the anger at. In such a state, I was emotionally volatile, behaved badly, and would suddenly lashed out at people. I apologized afterwards but the damage was done.

I Am Not My Thoughts And Feelings

A chance sentence in a book, “I Am Not That Thought”, gave me the answer. If I am not that thought, then I’m also not that feeling because one usually comes with the other. (Thinking couldn’t fix the feelings I had.) If I am not my feelings, then it meant that I didn’t have to act according to my feelings. I didn’t have to react according to, or believe in, the low energy states. I could decide how to act, regardless of my emotions or thoughts.

Of course, the epiphany didn’t immediately change my life and behavior. As with most worthwhile things, it took a lot of work and a lot of failures. It gave me a little wedge which I could begin to try to insert between my feelings and my actions. Most of the time, I failed; but once in a while, I succeeded. And over time (many years), the successes slowly widen the gap between feeling and acting. In that gap, I was the decision maker, not my emotions.

When those feelings of meaninglessness came, I could accept them (in a way, they are true) but stop myself from ruminating on them, which prevented the low energy state. Over time (many more years), not ruminating evolved into not identifying with the feeling. Emotions are like visitors to my house (my mind). I welcome them, give them the spare bedroom for the night, and by morning, they have already left. I don’t attach them to myself. I don’t become them. That would be a silly thing to do.

So now, I try not to identify with any of my thoughts or feelings. I don’t suppress them, but can understand that it may appear that way. I think of thoughts and emotions as kindling. Because I don’t attach to them, put more thought and feeling into them, they don’t grow. Instead they appear and then eventually disappear. In the past, if I have a depressive thought like I’m going to be alone, I would dwell on it, feel pity for myself, think I’ll be alone forever, that there is no one for me, feel sadness, suffer regret for not taking advantage of past opportunities with women, and think I’ll die a lonely death. By identifying with, focusing on, and giving energy to the initial negative feeling or thought, I create these self-reinforcing loops of thoughts and emotions. And the kindling becomes a roaring fire, capable of burning down my house.

If one supposes that the above self-reinforcing loop is the norm, then it would appear that I’m suppressing that loop. However, if one believes it is a choice, then I’m not suppressing, I’m just choosing not to engage the loop.

Growing Passions

The problem is that high passions appear to depend on that same self-reinforcing loop. I have a thought about wind surfing, I think that it would be cool, I imagine sliding across the water, wind and ocean spray on my face, I’m feeling happy, excited. I decide to research a class that I can take. Maybe I consider taking a long vacation to a nice place like Hawaii or southeast Asia where I can take lessons. It would be great, the experience of a lifetime. I’m identifying with it, focusing on it, and growing the ember into a robust fire. If I continue, I can build it eventually into a raging forest fire.

My friend exclaims that he now understands… I am a pseudo-thinker. Being a dominant thinker, he also has the same problem with ruminating on feelings and thoughts, asking himself why he had a particular feeling, and going around in circles. Except, he primarily suffers from a thinking loop, not a feeling loop. He solves the problem by focusing mainly on his business (which is also his purpose) and not giving thought to anything unrelated; he has no energy to spare to ruminate on anything else. And if anything negative comes up, he would ignore it. He would only ruminate on the positive feelings and thoughts he has.

He suggests that I could do the same thing. That I could allow only positive feelings to grow. That I could flame my positive feelings into passions. I tell my friend that his suggestion is worth exploring; though inside, I am uncomfortable with the notion.

Passionless Passion

Not building upon my thoughts and emotions have become a habit. Along with not identifying with negative emotions and thoughts, I also do not identify with positive emotions and thoughts. It seemed simpler to not have to act differently for either. Though it is a habit, it is also a choice, which can be changed. I should be able choose which emotions to identify with. So perhaps, I can bring back my passionate highs by choosing to identify with only the positive thoughts and emotions. But something holds me back from making the change.

Choosing which feelings to identify with feels false to me. Who am I to decide which emotions are negative and which positive? If I stoke the one, why shouldn’t I stoke the other? And is being a pseudo-thinker so bad? I’m not sure. In the present, I enjoy the positive emotions as they occur, without trying to grow them. And I try to appreciate the negative feelings as they occur, without trying to fight them. Are passionate highs something I need? If something is a true passion of mine, do I need to artificially stoke it?

Perhaps, instead of growing passions, I can identify my passions by what I do. I read a lot because I like to read. It’s a quiet passion. I don’t get enflamed with positive feelings as I read or contemplate reading. Some periods of my life, I read a lot. But other periods, I don’t read much at all. I keep returning to it though. Isn’t that a passion without the passionate highs?

During times when I don’t feel like reading often, I imagine that if I try to stoke any urge to read into a bonfire, it may backfire on me. First, forcing myself to feel more intensely sounds like a lot of work, which is unappealing to a lazy person like myself. Second, trying to interfere with the natural lifecycle of my passion seems like a bad thing to do and I imagine, could kill the passion prematurely or permanently.

Serenity Now, Insanity Later

There is something to be said for trying to remain in a state of serenity. I’m finding that my mind is more quiet these days. Perhaps it is normal for humans to have extremes of high and low, and I’m just the odd Vulcan out. Perhaps I should be satisfy with who I am now and quietly enjoy my passions.

Disclaimer: This post makes me out to be a saint, or that I have grown from a self-absorbed child into a sage. I’m not. That is far from reality. I still have trouble controlling my strong negative emotions. More often that I would like, I still react without considering what the best response should be. But I keep trying. I keep reminding myself that it is a process, not an end state. That it must be continually practiced for the rest of my life. After all, I’m just an imperfect human, and will continue to be one until I die.

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Procrastination is Just a Feeling

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I procrastinated on writing this post about procrastination for half a year. I need help. I wonder why there is no 12 step program for procrastinators. At extreme, it is a mental health issue, right? Society tells us so, teaches us so and shames us so. It’s probably for the best because a procrastinator would rarely make it past step zero, showing up to the meeting.

droopy_dogInstead we procrastinators struggle alone, feeling like failures. Reading books and attending seminars in the hope that someone somewhere has a magic bullet to solve our compulsion to not do things that we need to do. Actually, we most likely read books and attend seminars to avoid doing stuff. Unfortunately, as with every other important problem, there is no magical quick fix.

Note: To me, procrastination can mean two things: delaying doing something until you do it, or delaying until you end up not doing it. Both cause a lot of stress and guilt. The former usually ends in sub-par results. The latter could result in catastrophic endings or be a huge windfall of effort saved.

No Rhyme or Reason

Everyone has their theory about the cause of procrastination and thus what the fix should be. Unfortunately, the causes and fixes are different and sometimes conflicting. I procrastinate because I fear failure. No, it’s because I fear success. I’m afraid to start because it is a huge undertaking. No, I don’t start because it is a small one and thus not worthwhile to do.

Since I could remember, I’ve procrastinated about some things and not others. In school, some subjects I study diligently for and others I would cram the night before an exam. Early at my job, I worked in cycles, months of extreme productivity followed by periods of forcing myself to do the minimum. Liking or hating didn’t seem to be the reason because I procrastinated on subjects I liked and did the work I hated and vice versa. Neither was wanting to please or not please family, friends, classmates, teachers, teammates, and managers. Fear or defiance of the consequences drove me to do or not do. I didn’t know why I was motivated or why I was not.

Just-In-Time Management

I tried time management tools like tracking my minutes or the Pomodoro Technique (which involves breaking work down into 25 minute intervals), but that was more work than just doing the work I was avoiding in the first place. I ended up using prioritized to-do lists and a calendar for meetings and appointments. My to-do lists are text documents that I frequently edit to sort tasks based upon importance and to delete tasks which are done or no longer necessary. When I feel motivated to work, I try to compete as many to-do items as possible.

Over time, I’ve trained myself to take care of the small tasks right away. For small tasks, the burden of having to remember to do them is greater than just doing them. It is a relief to complete them and checked them off in my mind. At work, for medium to big tasks, the angst of feeling like a failure or loser from not doing the task (in the eyes of peers and managers) is greater than just doing the task, so I do it. Outside of work, the medium to big tasks were problematic to do if they didn’t have undesirable consequences like family members being mad or the IRS asking where my tax return was. However, though I will complete the tasks to avoid the consequences, I may still procrastinate until the last moment and endure the stress.

For medium to big tasks that had no external consequences (like writing a novel on the side or learning a new language), my last theory was that I was afraid to start something because of the large time commitment. The solution I came up with was to trick myself by just committing to start for a short period of time, say 15 minutes only. Once I started, I usually ended up spending much more than 15 minutes. I explored this solution in a previous post, Roadblock To Nirvana (see the “A Simple Plan For The Rest Of My Life” and later sections). Unfortunately, some willpower was still necessary to overcome the fact that I knew that I was trying to trick myself into thinking of a large time commitment as a tiny commitment.

In the end, whether I procrastinated or not still depended upon how I was feeling, whether I could motivated myself or not. All the above were compensatory tools, to reduce the occurrence or duration of procrastination, that ended up not working most of the time.

Root of All Procrastination

These past few months, I’ve tried to find the root cause of procrastination. I’ve discovered that there is none. I procrastinate on anything for any number of reasons; from not going to the gym because my stomach felt a little bloated to not wanting to clean the bathroom because hey, it’s not a pleasant thing to do. I’m not motivated to do it so I don’t.

I’ve realized that there is no logical cause and no logical fix. No way to think myself out of this problem. It is because the problem is not thinking, it is feeling. Procrastination is just a feeling. Hey, I just feel like not doing it. As with any feeling, there is no way to reason with it. There may be no obvious cause for a feeling so digging for one would only turn up dead-ends and false positives that might make the situation worse. I can argue with myself about why I should not be having the feeling, but that doesn’t get rid of the feeling. I can override the feeling but eventually my willpower will be exhausted.

The only effective solution is to accept the feeling. To acknowledge that I don’t feel like doing something and then doing that something in spite of it. A small amount of willpower is still necessary, but I’m not fighting the feeling; I’m just letting it occupy the extra guest bedroom in my mind until it decides to leave. In the meantime, I just do what I need to do.

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.” – Stephen King

I still felt that something was missing. We are beings with free will so if I want to procrastinate, why shouldn’t I be able to? If I’m willing to accept the consequences of not doing something, what’s wrong with that? What is so bad about procrastination? From past experience, procrastination has helped me to avoid doing tasks which, at the last minute, turned out to be unnecessary. So there are good things about procrastination.

procrastination_poster

Saying that procrastination is just a feeling is incomplete. To be more accurate, procrastination is just a feeling of not wanting to do something that we have judged should be done. That is the conflict. For whatever reason, we have decided that something needs to be done and because we don’t do it, it remains at the back of our head that we didn’t do what we have committed ourselves to do. We didn’t meet the expectations we had of ourselves.

For me, having an unmet judgement or expectation results in mental baggage. We have failed ourselves and we can’t hide that failure from ourselves. Worse, resentment usually follows the disappointment. Who judged that we should do something? Who decided that we should do something we don’t feel like doing? Procrastination may be our rejection of that judgement. Our rebellious self could be saying, “You think it should be done… well I don’t and I’m going to prove it by not doing it.” Fatally, in the final analysis, the judge is us and we are only rejecting ourselves.

My solution is to remove the judgement and expectation, which would eliminate the resulting resentment and rejection. We should not have to do anything. We can choose to do something for whatever reason. There may be consequences like bad credit if we have late or missing payments. But if the consequences are acceptable, then the choice should exist as it always does. Do I do it now or not or ever? Any decision is fine. A decision not to do something is equivalent to deciding to accept the consequences of not doing that something.

Note: See my posts, Who Are We to Blindly Judge? and Expectations Are Bad, M’kay?, for tips on how to avoid making judgements and expectations.

In practice, expect to have feelings of procrastination often. When you can catch yourself feeling them, stop and accept those feelings. Try to realize if you are judging or expecting yourself to do that something. Determine the consequences of not doing. Then make a decision to do or not do. Over time, you will learn to be okay with having the feelings and doing or not doing.

Dark Side of No Stress

I implemented my solution above and ended up doing nothing beyond what is necessary. This is bad. I completed job tasks and other daily living tasks like paying rent. But I didn’t do anything extra that had no consequence, like writing a blog post. Without the self-imposed judgments and expectations driving me to do, I ended up not doing.

While it was peaceful and pleasantly stress-free, this was not the desired end state. The dark side of the solution is not getting much done because I don’t expect myself to do anything. It turns out that setting goals and expecting myself to accomplish those goals is what makes life interesting. It’s the drive that pushes me forward, to improve myself, meet interesting people, and experience new wonders.

It’s like when Alice asked the Cheshire Cat which way she should go:

Alice: Which way should I go?
Cat: That depends on where you are going.
Alice: I don’t know.
Cat: Then it doesn’t matter which way you go.
(from Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland)

Goals determine which way we should go. Without them, I ended up stuck in the same spot, not forcing myself to take a step in either direction. This state of being is stress-free and stagnant.

On Pain of Doing

Rather than re-introduce my self judgments and expectations and their attendants, stress and guilt, the answer is to make the consequences so undesirable or unpleasant that I would decide to do what I have determined I should do. Or to make the goals so pleasurable and worthwhile that I would want to do them anyhow.

I needed to identify my important goals. Goals that would be painful not to do. The goals that I would regret not pursuing on my deathbed. The goals that if I didn’t make an effort to accomplish would render my life void of meaning. I’m talking about those goals.

I didn’t need to succeed at those goals, I just needed to try my best. They could be one or many. I could do them one at a time or several at once. They just needed my attention and doing.

I’m not sure if the above will work, but at least I’m moving in one direction. Whether it is the right or wrong way, I do not know… I just feel like doing something.

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Break the Negative Thinking-Feeling Feedback Loop

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A friend asked for my advice recently. He was experiencing emotional turmoil or as he described it, an overwhelming shit-storm of horrible feelings all mashed up together. He didn’t know what to do; he was thinking in circles. He needed another person’s perspective. As he listed all the troubles that he was going through, I could understand why he was disturbed. There were a lot of bad happenings, uncertainties and unknowns. I suggested talking over all his issues, one by one, to separate and understand them. In the end, though we didn’t solve anything, I think he felt better.

061PinkyNBrainLater, he told me that he had identified the horrible feelings in his gut as stress. He had been stressed out by all his problems. So stressed that he couldn’t think clearly, couldn’t made good decisions, and couldn’t work. I think the problem started off with him dwelling on his issues, creating negative emotions as a result of all that thinking, and those emotions in turn causing his thinking to become more negative. Or the bad emotions caused negative thoughts, which made the emotions even worse. It was a feedback cycle of negative thoughts and feelings that caused him to work himself into a stressed-out state.

The gist is that negative thinking leads to negative feelings which lead to negative thinking and so forth in a feedback loop. Or it could start with negative feelings leading to negative thoughts and so on. This cycle will increase stress as the person dwells upon one negative event after another. Sometimes, the person won’t be able to determine which came first, the negative feeling or the negative thought. Thankfully, which comes first doesn’t matter. Breaking the negative feedback loop is what is important.

Dominant thinking personality types probably start with a negative thought, while dominant feeling types start with a negative feeling. The dominant thinking type thinks a negative thought (maybe not consciously), which generates a negative feeling, and the thinking type tries to identify where that negative feeling came from and comes up with justifications for the bad feelings which generate further bad thoughts. Dominant feeling types get a negative feeling (probably unconsciously), which causes a negative thought, which causes another negative feeling (or re-enforces the existing one) and soon they wonder why they are feeling so bad. Feeling types also can come up with justifications which are negative thoughts which then cause them to feel worse.

However, dominant thinkers don’t always lead with a thought. And dominant feelers don’t always lead with a feeling. For me, as a dominant feeling type, most of the time, I probably lead with a feeling, but that doesn’t preclude that sometimes I lead with a thought. Most of the time, I feel that both arrive at the same time. It may be that unconsciously, one comes before the other; but by the time they reach my consciousness, it seems like they come simultaneously. Regardless, because they almost always appear in inter-dependent pairs, we must treat both thought and feeling. (Treating both may be especially required for hot button issues where I already have a pre-programmed thought and feeling response.)

There are two methods to break a feedback loop, one to prevent negative thinking from causing negative feelings and the second to prevent the reverse. Both may be required to break the feedback cycle.

Reframing: Prevent Negative Thoughts From Causing Negative Feelings

In my post, Who Are We to Blindly Judge?, I talked about reframing as a way to replace a negative judgment with a positive one. Fundamentally, reframing converts a negative thought into a positive thought (or at least a neutral thought). By changing negative thoughts to positive ones, we prevent the negative thinking from giving rise to negative feelings. This short-circuits one part of the feedback cycle.

To reframe, the moment you catch yourself having a negative thought, force yourself to think of an alternative, positive thought. For example, immediately after you find yourself thinking that the salesperson is being rude to you (and hopefully before you get irritated), think “gee, he was much more rude to the customer before me, so he actually likes me more”. If you can’t manage a positive thought, think of a neutral one like “that’s just how he is, what can you do… I’m glad I won’t be seeing him again ever”.

The goal is to prevent yourself from continuing to ruminate on another person’s bad behavior or some external misfortune, and working yourself into an agitated state. A reframe may prove to be the little additional support that prevents the emotional avalanche from occurring.

Reframes are great for one-of interactions and events, but if you find yourself doing reframes for the same person or event again and again, then you’ll need to be pro-active and attempt to confirm the validity of your reframes. If the repeated event is always stressful, consider removing yourself from the event. If repeated interactions with a person cause you stress, confirm with the person whether your negative thought is valid or not; you might have misunderstood. If you haven’t misunderstood, consider reducing or discontinuing interactions with that person.

Let us look at an example to explore the full range of methods to handle negative thoughts. If a friend said something which sounded really bad to you, here are some possible responses you can make, from worst to best:

  1. Respond to your friend immediately based upon your unexpressed negative thought and feeling response. Accuse him of being a bigot or whatever bad label comes to mind. This will escalate the tension because your friend may not understand why he is under attack and may counter-attack as a response. Most likely, both you and your friend will experience negative feedback loops and the resulting stress.
  2. Give your friend the benefit of a doubt; he is a good person so that is most likely not his intention. You don’t say anything in response beyond a non-committal acknowledgement and you let the conversation die or go elsewhere. This is still not the optimal response because you will always have a tiny bit of uncertainty and doubt about what your friend said, and the emotional response is still there, existing in your head and taking up your mental space. If this repeats in enough incidences, you may hold an image of your friend as someone who unintentionally makes bad-sounding statements and this will adjust your expectation. Because this friend is someone you care about and will see again, having to keep such an expectation in mind is unnecessary mental stress and baggage.

  3. Give your friend the benefit of a doubt and ask for clarification to remove all doubt. Give him a chance to respond and resolve any misunderstanding. Your friend will probably say that he didn’t mean it to sound that way, that it was not his intention, and that he meant to say it another way. You will end up with no mental stress or baggage — any related negative emotion is fully resolved and cleared, and your image of your friend as a good person is reaffirmed. Misunderstandings in conversations and human interactions are frequent and normal. What you want is to take this third step to avoid accumulating mental stress and baggage about people.

Acceptance: Prevent Negative Feelings From Causing Negative Thoughts

In a previous post (Acceptance: I Think And Feel, Therefore Nothing), I talked about how accepting thoughts and feelings, acknowledging their existence without judgment or attachment, leads to freedom from them. By observing and accepting my thoughts and feelings as they came and went, I learned not to be affected by them and to take control of how I acted (and reacted). Acceptance is also how one can prevent negative feelings from generating negative thoughts.

Feelings are irrational so most of the time, one cannot address them by rational thinking or reframing. Feelings don’t care about the possibility that the cause is innocent or that there is a misunderstanding. A negative feeling just feels bad and that is that. You can’t convince it otherwise, suppress it, transform it, or kill it. All you can do is to accept that feeling and decide whether to act on it or not. Usually with bad emotions, accepting them and then deciding not to act on them, with practice, can prevent negative feelings from generating negative thoughts. If you decide not to dwell on what could be causing the negative feeling, but just accept the negative feeling as okay to experience as itself, you won’t generate negative thoughts.

Acceptance means to expand your mental space to accommodate that negative feeling. It will still be uncomfortable, but you will let it be. If it chooses to stick around, you are fine with the continuing discomfort. If it leaves, that would also be good. You have no expectations of the feeling… you don’t react to it beyond acknowledging that it exists.

If you haven’t gotten the hang of acceptance, here are less ideal (though progressively healthier) ways to handle negative emotions that may serve as stepping stones to acceptance:

  1. Think very briefly about what is causing that negative emotion or why you are having it. If nothing immediately comes to mind, stop! If something does come to mind, hopefully understanding it will lead to acceptance. This method is dangerous (can degrade to extensive dwelling on why you are having bad feelings) and should only be done for causes that are very obvious; like when you are scared and pissed because you have just slammed the trunk on your thumb, the thumb is stuck, and you can’t reach the lock to release the trunk (yeah, this happened to me once). Otherwise, if you keep trying to come up with a cause, you might generate other negative emotions or thoughts.

    Thinking about the emotion will give it energy and keep it potent. So while calling up a good friend to discuss the problem might help you to understand it, if the conversation drags on without resolution, you may start feeling worse. Venting your negative thoughts and feelings may only re-enforce and increase them.

  2. Emotions persist. You usually cannot think a feeling to death. You can try to starve a negative feeling by getting yourself to experience positive emotions. Just like how it is hard to keep two opposing thoughts in your head for a long time, it is difficult to experience two opposing emotions at the same time for any significant length of time, especially if you focus on one of the emotions. So by feeling a positive emotion and thinking about that positive emotion, you will starve the negative emotion of attention and energy, and it will die… hopefully.

    My friend watches inspiring feel-good movies. The movie diverts his attention (thoughts) from the negative emotion and inspires him to have positive emotions. Reading a book, going out with friends to dance (but not to talk about your bad feelings), or doing any activity that takes your mind off the negative emotion and also encourages you to have positive emotions will most likely work.

  3. In some cases, reframing may help to handle negative emotions. A negative judgment contains both thoughts and feelings. When we reframe the judgment, we change (more accurately, replace) the thoughts and feelings. In fact, an effective reframe causes you to experience an entirely different powerful emotion that overwhelms the original negative feeling; the more powerful, the more effective the reframe.

    For example, there is a story about a dad on an airplane with a crying son. The boy was screaming and the dad was incapable of quieting him down. The passengers nearby grew irritated, annoyed and angry. Finally, the dad explained in a trembling voice that the boy’s mother, his wife, had just died. The passengers felt shocked, sorry and even some shame, which immediately short-circuited all the irritation and anger. They then asked what they could do to help.

    Initially, in a reframe, I had believed that the explanation (thinking) was primarily responsible for changing the negative emotion, but it was really a much stronger emotional response which replaced both the negative emotion and thought. An effective reframe needs to provide an explanation that explains the behavior, diverts attention from the negative emotion to a strong new emotion, which overrides the old negative thought and feeling.

Hopefully the tools above will help you to break out of the negative thinking feeling feedback loops that we all experience as a part of life.

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Expectations Are Bad, M’kay?

Self No Comments

My friend was complaining that his neighbor was mean, that he knew this because of the few times he has said hi to her, she rarely replied and when she did, she sounded annoyed. I then had this conversation with him:

mrmackey

Me: “Yes, I used to be annoyed too until I learned to let go of my expectation that everyone should reply.”
Him: “No, I don’t have expectations of people like that.”
Me: “Well, you seem upset about it. Why are you upset?”
Him: “I was taught that when you greet someone, they should greet you back. That is common social decency.”
Me: “So you got irritated because she did not exhibit social decency?”
Him: “Yes.”
Me: “So you expected her to say hi back and when she didn’t, you got annoyed?”
Him (with chagrin): “Yeah, I guess I did have an expectation… but it was drilled into me by my parents.”
Me: “I understand. Most of my expectations came from my parents also.” (Another one to blame the parental units for!)

I believe that letting go of expectations is the key to avoid getting upset or annoyed by the actions of others or even by random events. If you expect your spouse to read your mind, be ready for disappointment. If you expect that life should be fair and bad things happen to you, you are going to be angry. I didn’t discover this principle; it is nothing new and is actually one of the primary teachings of Buddhism (and probably other faiths).

Training Wheels: The Anti-expectation

Unfortunately, there is no step-by-step manual to letting go of expectations. You are told to let go of expectations, but how to go about doing that? There are fortunate people out there who can just decide to let go, but I’m not one of them. I had to come up with my own method.

Because it is easier to replace something than to just get rid of it (leaving a vacuum), I decided that I needed to replace the expectations with something else. Similar to how a smoker would replace cigarettes with a nicotine patch, I decided to replace an expectation with its opposite, an anti-expectation. An anti-expectation is not a low expectation; it goes all the way to the opposite end. Optimists would call it a totally negative expectation; I call it keeping my sanity.

Some examples of anti-expectations:

  • I do not expect people to reply to my greeting or to demonstrate social decency at all.
  • I do not expect my spouse to read my mind.
  • Life is not fair. Sometimes, it looks like life is out to get me.

With high expectations, you’ll be disappointed most of the time. With low expectations, you’ll be disappointed some of the time. With strict anti-expectations, you’ll be occasionally pleased when people and events exceed your anti-expectations. Which kind of expectation would you rather adopt in your live?

For my friend, if he held the anti-expectation that his neighbor would not return his greeting, he can continue to greet her pleasantly, take her non-replies in stride, and occasionally be pleasantly surprised when she greets him back. Maybe, her greeting will be so enjoyable that it will give the rest of his day a positive glow.

If you are married and hold the anti-expectation that your spouse cannot read your mind at all, you’ll assume he or she is as obtuse as a rock (though very lovable) and requires very clear communications. And even when he or she messes up, you are not upset because well, what can you expect? You probably didn’t do a good enough job explaining it. And when they do exceed your expectation by getting it partly right or totally right (pigs are flying), you’ll be so giddy that your feet will not touch the ground for the rest of the day.

If you don’t expect life to be fair, you’ll be the calm at the center of any storm. Tornado throws a tree missile through your living room? Well, you’re just glad no one got hurt. When a cashier overcharges your grocery, you’re glad you only lost a few bucks instead of a million dollars because that could totally have happened! Your coworker, who you think is less capable (though still very likeable), gets the promotion you believe you deserve; oh well, it’s amazing that even one of you minions got promoted and it offers that tiniest chance that life will decide to stop screwing with you and promote you someday… maybe… probably not.

To start, you’ll need to practice identifying the broken expectation when you get disappointed, upset, or annoyed at the actions of others or events. Once you have identified the expectation, you can pretend that you believe in its opposite, the anti-expectation. Mulling over the anti-expectation will then quell the disappointment. (What are you disappointed about? After all, you anti-expected it in the first place. Duh!) With practice (a month or two), this will become a habit. With even more practice (several months), the time between the disappointment and move from expectation to anti-expectation will reduce — until the disappointment, identified expectation, and anti-expectation occur almost simultaneously.

Letting Go (After A Lot Of Hard Work)

Eventually (after half a year to a year of practice), you will find that things which bothered you in the past will no longer disappoint, upset, or irritate you. It would seem as if you have no expectations, that you have successfully let them go (at least for those expectations that you have practiced anti-expectations for). I believe that practicing the anti-expectation will train your subconscious mind to disregard the unmet expectation immediately, so that no emotion response occurs. Letting go of an expectation means that you are no longer affected by whether it is met or unmet.

Unfortunately, learning to let go of one expectation does not automatically get rid of all your other expectations. You will have to put in the work for each expectation that you identify and wish to let go of. Over time, with practice, it should become easier and less time-consuming to do the anti-expectation work.

Great Expectations

I don’t think it is healthy to let go of all your expectations. The expectations you might consider keeping are positive expectations concerning yourself (like achieving life goals) and expectations concerning how others should treat you (they should treat you well). If you keep those expectations, you will want to manage how you react when those expectations are not met or violated. You will want to react understandingly and calmly, while determining your next steps.

The solution is to simultaneously hold both the expectation and its anti-expectation in your head. The practice of recognizing your unmet expectation and then bringing its anti-expectation to mind should hopefully have given you this ability to have two conflicting thoughts at the same time (well, almost at the same time). When an expectation you have decided to keep is not met, the existence of its anti-expectation should blunt any emotional reaction and give you the clear head to decide what to do next.

If you have placed the expectation on yourself to win the gold medal, but end up with the bronze, it’s okay; you’ve tried your best. If a friend consistently mistreats you, you may decide to hold onto the expectation that friends should treat you well and gracefully reduce the time you spend with that friend. The anti-expectations should prevent any regrettable, emotional reaction. You’ll be more understanding and forgiving because you know that you are choosing to hold that expectation for yourself, not anyone else.

The Serenity Prayer authored by Reinhold Niebuhr:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.”

I think the goal is to not hold expectations that you have no control over (other people’s actions and events) and to hold expectations that you have autonomy over (yourself, how you react to others, and how you allow yourself to be treated by others). I find this way of looking at things very empowering and hope that you will too.

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Roadblock To Nirvana

Self No Comments

Imagine that you have made a commitment to always remind yourself that reality is an illusion. That the floor you stand on, the air flowing into your lungs, your body, and the people and places around you are all illusions. That everything and everyone is not real. Whenever you remember to, you make this reminder to yourself. When washing dishes or stopped at a light in your car. Several times a day. For a year.

Brainwashing Myself

043GirlOnBeachThat’s what I did. I consciously brainwashed myself for a whole year. Good idea? I’m not so sure. I experienced many wonderful benefits but encountered one major downside.

Believing that reality is an illusion does have a basis in science. It does not need to be a fanciful flight of the imagination. At the basic quantum level, everything can be regarded as probabilities. In this instance of time, the probability collapses that a quark exists at this position in space. Other probabilities collapse into other quarks at the same position in space to create a neutron. And other probabilities collapse into positrons, neutrons, and electrons to make an atom. And this atom, in combination with other atoms, forms a living cell and with other cells, forms your body. All these gazillion probabilities collapse into you, a thinking being, at this exact moment. And they collapse into you again in the next moment and the next. It’s a miracle that we don’t fly apart, scattered across the universe, blinking into and out of existence.

Expand that miracle to include each of the billions of humans, the Earth we inhabit, and the universe around us. It is awe inspiring. As I convinced myself more and more that all was illusion, I grew more amazed at reality. When I’m hiking, I have to stop and let the marvel of nature wash over me. What possibilities exist for there to be this majestic valley and mountain before me? Sometimes, I spend minutes looking at my hands, wondering at its existence and at the fact that I can move it with my thoughts. Amazement soon moves into gratitude for my existence and the endless wonders that surround me.

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.” ― Albert Einstein

Note that I’m not in the state of amazement and gratitude continuously, all the time. This mindfulness infrequently comes and goes. Similar to how I have to continually remind myself to remember that reality is illusion, I have to remind myself to be amazed and grateful. I think this infrequency is a very good thing. Because humans adapt, I’m sure that after a while of being continually in such an “enlightened” state, it would start to be dull and average.

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

The goal I was shooting for with this mind experiment was to attain better detachment from worldly concerns. And I believe the experiment succeeded. What does detachment sound like? The phrase “don’t sweat the small stuff… and it’s all small stuff” (from a book title) comes to mind. Small stuff like almost hitting a car that cuts suddenly into your lane on the freeway, or having to wait at the checkout line because someone ahead of you has an issue. Because all is illusion, why should I be attached to events and their outcomes? Everything is as it should be. The near collision wasn’t a collision. I am here, waiting in this line, because I am supposed to be here. And I’m doing what I am supposed to be doing. No decision can be wrong if everything is an illusion, including the decision itself.

Detachment is great. Most of the time, I’m not stressing out about what goes on, wondering if I’m making the right choice, or worrying about the future. I am just calm, relaxed. Now, I still do things that I have to do, such as paying the bills and being productive at work, to avoid the possibility of externally-induced stress, such as getting evicted or not having enough money for food. There is only so far you can go before reality takes a bite. I’m sure that a truly detached being wouldn’t care about what happens to his body, but I’m still concerned about not experiencing bad things like pain and starvation.

Other than the survival stuff, I expect things to work out. If they do, great. If they don’t, that’s okay. Surprisingly, most of the time, things work out for the best; if not immediately, then in the near future. Sometimes I think it’s the worse, but then a twist occurs and it’s actually for the best. My previous car, a Jetta, developed a weird crayon smell in hot weather caused by the decay of the sound absorption material Volkswagen used. I was a bit vexed because the issue was a manufacturer defect but the car was out of warranty. I decided to live with it. Months later, my sister upgraded and offered to give me her Civic. I sold the Jetta and ended up with a car which was more reliable, used cheaper gasoline (regular, not premium), and was less expensive to maintain. Because I try not to expect good results, I’m pleasantly surprised when things just work out for the better. The universe (or if you prefer, God) knows what it’s doing.

Do Sweat The Big Stuff

The good thing about detachment is that I’m floating along in life, without stress. The bad thing about detachment is that I’m floating along in life, without stress. I’ve realized that self-induced stress is necessary to push me beyond my comfort level, to take action, and to force me to grow. Without stress, I feel like I’m at a dead-end. I’m no longer clawing my way up the corporate ladder. I’m not pushing myself to arrange get-togethers and activities with friends. I’m not under a time crunch to do things, professionally or personally. I get what needs to be done done, but I don’t push myself to go the extra mile. Sometimes I miss being busy, having to sweat about juggling family, friends, work, personal life, and their related dramas. I miss feeling like I’m accomplishing a lot.

“Creativity requires action, and part of that action must be physical. It is one of the pitfalls of Westerners adopting Eastern meditation techniques to bliss out and render ourselves high but dysfunctional. We lose our grounding and, with it, our capacity to act in the world. In the pursuit of higher consciousness, we render ourselves unconscious in a new way. Exercise combats this spiritually induced dysfunction.” – Julia Camera, The Artist’s Way

When I know that my accomplishments have no meaning, it takes a lot of wind from feeling triumphant. There is a lack of motivation and a lot of passivity. I’m not driving. The universe directs my life… I’m just waiting for it to send experiences my way. The ride is very pleasant but I’m not going anywhere. I’ve gone too far to the other end and am falling down a puddle without end. As with anything in life, when you reach a roadblock or dead-end, it’s time to look for a detour.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff… and everything is small stuff” is right and wrong. While learning to not sweat the small stuff, I should have kept sweating the big stuff. The big stuff is not everything, it’s just the important thing. And it is right that I should be sweating the big stuff in my life. Sharing experiences with family, friends, and coworkers. Figuring out what is important and meaningful to do with my life. Having compassion for my fellow humans in their misfortunes and sharing the joy in their triumphs. Putting myself out into the world, making mistakes, getting bruised, meeting cool people, and learning and doing crazy, interesting things. Trying to be a better person than I was yesterday. And, though I hate to say it, forcing myself to eat healthy and exercise. Those are the big stuff that matters.

“Don’t sweat the small stuff… and everything is small stuff except for the big stuff.” – My addendum

Good Vs Bad Procrastinators

I admit that it is an awful amount of big stuff to sweat, especially for a procrastinator such as myself. As with anything in life, procrastination is good and bad, depending upon how you handle it. Being a “good” procrastinator, I push myself to be creative about eliminating unnecessary work and doing the remainder in a way that requires much less effort and time. As a software engineer, I would spend my time to write a program to do repetitive work, instead of doing the repetitive work myself, especially if I know it is recurring work. And I write how-to instructions in detail, in my technical blog and in a wiki at work, because it saves me a ton of time when I can quickly refer people asking for help to an article and when I need to remind myself how to do something. (You probably have experiences with coworkers who ask you a question that you take the time to answer and a few days later, they ask you the same question again. I just point them at the wiki repeatedly until they understand that I won’t humor them and they go off to find another “victim”.)

Sometimes, if I feel a task is not important, waiting until near the deadline to do it can save me time when I find out the that task is no longer necessary. The downside is that if I’m wrong, I may have to work extra hard to meet the deadline; but that is the acceptable risk and most of the time, I come out ahead. Good procrastinators are careful gamblers who figure out the odds that something needs to be done. Bad procrastinators are bad gamblers who bet their energy on things that don’t need to be done, ignoring the important work.

A Simple Plan For The Rest Of My Life

Back to the main topic, I believe I have found a simple 2 step plan to making progress on the big stuff. I created this plan by merging ideas from two books, “The Now Habit at Work” by Neil Fiore and “Why People Fail” by Simon Reynolds. This plan will work for procrastinators, and if it works for procrastinators, it should work for everyone else.

Here is the simple 2 step plan for sweating the big stuff:

  1. Commit to start creating for 15 minutes each day or whatever is most attainable. (For the truly bad procrastinators, 5 minutes might be a better starting point.)
  2. Increase the time as you feel comfortable to.

Why the weird “start creating” phrase? Let’s address the latter part first, as it is the most important. I believe that the purpose of life for all humans is to create. We express our most pure nature when we do something creative, like drawing a picture, writing a blog, inventing a new skateboard trick, building furniture out of discards, combining flavors into a new dish, and testing a new prank on a friend. When we create, we are pushing our limits to bring something new into existence. It reminds me of the phrase, “man is created in the image of God”. To me, that phrase means that when we are creating, we are closest to God.

When I look closer at my big stuff, I find that the biggest, most challenging stuff has to do with creation. Creating enriching moments with my family, friends, and coworkers. Trying to find my life’s purpose can more accurately be stated as creating my life’s purpose. Creating a better life for myself and my fellow beings. Creating a new, better version of myself each day. If I keep my focus on the big stuff and commit to creating each day, my creations will naturally become the big stuff. I sweat the big stuff by creating it.

Self Help For The Procrastinator

The “start creating” phrase and “15 minutes” time limit are for procrastinators or people who lead very busy lives. I synthesized this approach from two ideas about overcoming procrastination, getting started from the “The Now Habit at Work” and limiting time commitment from “Why People Fail”. I hesitate to take on tasks because I don’t want to commit to spending my time and effort to complete them. The bigger the task and the greater the effort required, the more I hesitate. However, if I think that a task is short (just 15 minutes or even 5 minutes) and the effort is small (I’m committing to starting the task, not finishing it), I don’t mind taking it on. Once I get started, I usually go for longer than 15 minutes and sometimes a couple of hours later, I will complete the creation. (This method is how I usually complete postings for this blog.)

It’s a mind trick I play on myself. The goal is to do something (anything) creative every day and the secondary goal is to establish a daily habit of creation. Once I have the habit, I won’t need the trick as much. Or if the habit never develops (usually true for a procrastinator), I may just have to live with the trick. I can still “start” the same thing today that I’ve started the past 20 days or that I’ve started a year ago. Off and on, I’ve “started” this blog post more than two dozen times already.

Before I end this posting, I want to talk about learning. Sometimes I confused learning with creating. When I’m surfing the Internet and learning new things, could that be considered part of my commitment to doing something creative each day? The answer is yes and no. There is a gray area between creating and learning. I believe that learning may be required to meet the goal of creating, but it should never be the goal itself. For example, how can I invent a new skateboard trick if I don’t know how to skate and can’t perform any of the existing tricks? How can I create a video game if I don’t learn how to program first? So if you are learning in order to surpass that learning and create, then yes, it meets your commitment to start creating each day. If you are learning just to learn, then no, it does not meet the commitment to create.

Start Creating Every Day

Aya_KitouIf we are made in the image of God, then his greatest gift to us is creation in its many splendors. Are we not then made to create? By creating, do we not express our truest nature and offer thanks and gratitude to God?

I wanted to end with a story about Aya Kitou. She was a young woman, a teenager who was stricken with a disease, Spinocerebellar Ataxia, which took her mobility and ultimately her life. Yet, she never gave up on living, on growing, on creating her future, however imperfect and dark it became. From her diary, a quote (translated from Japanese) stands out: “So fall down, get up, and smile because you are alive and experiencing this wonderful gift of life.”

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Who Are We to Blindly Judge?

Self 1 Comment

When I was very young, in elementary school, there was a celebratory event with cookies and punch. I remember taking extra cookies. As I was wrapping them up in a napkin, I looked up to see my teacher, whom I liked and respected. She had a cold, frozen face on and I could see the blistering stare of disapproval that she was attempting to suppress. Shamed-face, I turned away.

045GirlCryingAs I think back, I realized that it was worse that she didn’t ask me why I was taking extra cookies. I would have answered that I was saving them for my younger sisters. We were recent immigrants and didn’t get the luxury of cookies so often. But she didn’t. Instead, she made a quick judgment. And though she tried to hide her disapproval, I was able to sense it and be affected by it. I reacted with feelings of shame.

I am not making out my teacher to be some sort of horrible person. She isn’t. What she did was what many adults would do almost unconsciously in the same situations. I’ve done it. You’ve also done it. We’ve done it to other adults and to children. In the greater scheme, this is how I imagine cultural mores and social conduct are trained into children and enforced in adults.

As a sensitive child, I reacted in two ways. First, I learned to inhibit my own actions by imagining what others would think of them beforehand. Second, I made a vow to not judge others in any way. The first was a bad decision to follow in extreme and turned me into a “nice” person; which turned out to not be a very nice thing to do at all. The second, I’ve often failed at and it remains to be seen whether in the end, it is a bad or good decision. I think good and I will try to convince you so.

Why Judging Can Be So Wrong

I have two problems with judging. The first problem is that we judge the motivations of others. We say they did something because they thought or felt a certain way. Can we truly know what someone is thinking or feeling? Even if they tell us, we can’t be sure that they are not liars or that they don’t even know themselves. Most likely, they will tell us rationalizations and justifications that make them appear in the best light.

We are worse when we ascribe negative motivations like hatred to behavior. Supposed a neighbor invited you to her party. At the party, she doesn’t talk to you at all beyond a quick hello and you observe her talking to and laughing with others. You think, she doesn’t talk to me much because she doesn’t like me. But maybe, she was busy being the host and taking care of those whom she thought needed her the most. And she thought that you could take care of yourself and do the mingling on your own. She made a judgment and so did you.

The second problem is that we judge the actions of others. Have you hear the saying, don’t judge people, judge their actions? Well, it can be wrong. Some folks perform what can be considered bad actions for all the right reasons. Others can perform what can be considered good actions for all the wrong reasons. Can you tell which is which? Can you tell if it is neither? I can’t.

Take the over-used example of a person stealing food. Stealing is a bad action. What if their children are starving? The action is still bad, but we wouldn’t judge them as bad persons.

There are some actions that are so detrimental to society, like the killing of another, that judgment must be made and punishment mete out. Laws are enacted to enforce such cases. If you break the law, the fact remains that you broke the law, regardless of your reasons. But it’s not universal. You have civil law for murder (illegal killing). You have military law and international conventions governing war conduct to put limits on the amount of condoned killing by soldiers. Even more unclear, different societies have different ideas of what is illegal and what punishments are appropriate.

The Judging Paradox

Unfortunately, we humans have evolved to judge. We quickly judge if a situation or another person is dangerous or not. We decide to fight or flee. The decision is then automatically applied to future situations that are similar. It is a shortcut for our brains. In the past, when survival was more difficult, it saved our lives and the lives of our families and community countless times. In the present and future, it may cause more problems than it solves.

009ManMirrorI am not advocating getting rid of quick, automated judgments and decisions. If we had to think carefully when responding to each and every event that occurs, we would be so busy that we couldn’t think or do anything new. It is okay to have automated reactions, but the downside is that such reactions may not be appropriate and may even be damaging.

What I suggest we do is to become more conscious of when we may be blindly judging and to re-examine some of our decisions. For when we judge others, does the judgment not reflect on ourselves also?

Reframe, Reframe, And Keep Reframing

The best scenario is not to judge at all. We can try but it’s such a part of our human makeup that it would be impossible to do so all the time. When we have to judge, let us always ascribe the best motivations for actions that we can think of. More than likely, we will be wrong. But if we are going to be wrong, we might as well be wrong in the right way. Or at least, in a way which makes us feel good and helps us to react with our best selves.

I call the above method, to reframe. Our initial judgments will be driven by our emotions and we will reach the most negative conclusion about another’s intentions. We have to catch that initial judgment and reframe it by changing the conclusion to a positive one. For example, you are driving down the freeway and a car cuts in front of you. Heart beating, adrenaline pumping, and furious, you think, what a jerk, he’s doing it on purpose to piss me off, and I’m going to cut him off for revenge.

Quick, do a reframe! Force yourself to think, gosh, his wife’s pregnant, they need to get to the hospital, he’s unsettled and forgot to check his blind spot, and I had better back off because I don’t want to cause an accident on this most auspicious day. Calmed down and with a smile on your face, you immediately hit the brakes with great eagerness… and the car behind you rear-ends your car.

Ugh, ignore the last part. You get the idea. Reframe, reframe, and keep reframing until it becomes a habit. The trick is to catch yourself in the act of making a negative judgment and then to quickly reframe that judgment to a positive one. You will need to monitor your thoughts and feelings to do so. Check out my previous blog about monitoring and accepting thoughts and feelings.

Sometimes, another person’s action will affect you so strongly that you will not want to reframe. We can’t be saints all the time. To handle that, you will first need to acknowledge strongly how that action affects you emotionally, before doing a reframe. Doing so will defuse the negative emotion enough for you to do a reframe, which will then handle the remaining negative energy.

Going back to my earlier example of the party, you feel ignored or slighted because the neighbor did not spend much time talking to you. Express how that action affected you, “I am pissed off that she invited me and now is ignoring me. This is an insult!” Keep expressing how hurt you are until you can do a reframe. I like to think that we can always judge that the action is hurtful to us, but not that the person is a hurtful person.

In the End

With practice, over time, we will become less likely to judge others. We will be more likely to withhold our judgment and opinions. After all, isn’t being judgmental a lot of work? Evolution is not the best at reducing work. It just optimizes what is already there (judging) that works well enough. The more evolved method is to eliminate the work. Judging is extra work we don’t need.

Try your best to avoid judging people because we humans are so complex and messed up, that to get an accurate judgment of a person is beyond our abilities. If you catch yourself judging negatively, do a reframe. Don’t forget that this advice also applies to judging yourself. Treat yourself as well as you treat others. As Mother Teresa said, “… in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”

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It’s Not Very Nice To Be Nice

Self No Comments

013ChildNoEatHave you and a friend ever had the following conversation about what to eat for dinner?

Me: Where do you want to eat?
Friend: I dunno. Where do you want to eat?
Me: Anywhere is good. What’s your preference?
Friend: Oh, anything is good.
Me: Uh, how about Persian?
Friend: Nah, I had that yesterday.
Me: How about Italian?
Friend: Italian gives me indigestion.
Me: Hmm, how about Thai?

The above happens when people try to be nice to each other. Just don’t!

In the past, I wanted to be a nice person and tried to be and do things that I thought a nice person would be and do. And that ended up not being a very nice thing to do. I thought that being nice meant to be accommodating and to be willing to do things for others, sometimes at the expense of inconveniencing myself. In the end, I was being dishonest and not so nice to others and myself.

Almost a decade ago, on a trip to Central America, I was being so nice and accommodating that I ended up pissing off my travel companion. She told me to just stop it and tell her the truth. Evidently, I expressed no strong opinions or preferences and she couldn’t engage me as a real person because effectively I had no personality. After a while, it was more than she could bear.

She gave me pause (for which I will be ever thankful) and I took a hard look at my behavior and myself. She was right. In trying to be nice to others, I ended up being dishonest to myself. I didn’t respect my own wants, desires, and needs enough to express and assert them. I wasn’t being true to myself, and that was not being very nice to my friends and family.

Let me clarify for those who might be suffering from the “nice” virus. Being honest and assertive does not mean being confrontational and combative. It just means to express your preferences to others. Share your likes and dislikes. When you say, “I don’t care”, it should really be because you don’t care. Don’t be “nice”, only to resent the outcome. If you feel strongly about something, then take a stand on it. You may not get it, but others will know where you are coming from. They will know you and that is the nicest gift that you can give them.

Being accommodating can transfer the burden of decision making to friends and family. Because I did not express my likes and dislikes in a misguided attempt to put their needs before mine, I made them responsible for the decision and the outcome. They may feel uneasy because they are unsure that what they choose is something I would like. Even though I professed to not care, they know that it is unrealistic to not care all the time. Can you see how unfair and unnecessary this burden is?

Here’s how I would handle the dinner conversation nowadays:

Me: Where do you want to eat?
Friend: I dunno. Where do you want to eat?
Me: I am in the mood for Persian.
Friend: Nah, I had that yesterday.
Me: Ok, tell me what food you don’t want to eat tonight.
       No Mexican or Chinese for me.

Please don’t go to the opposite extreme and become a scrooge. If the outcome is not important to you and you feel like being accommodating, then be accommodating. If you care about the outcome, then ask for it. If you don’t get it, then shoot for compromise instead of accommodation. Compromise is when both teams have some skin in the game, while accommodation is when one team never bothered to play. If I care about the other team (friends and family) playing instead of me winning, the latter would irritate me a lot.

Once I stopped trying to be nice, it felt like a huge burden had lifted. It was very hard work being nice and accommodating all the time. I had more free time for myself because I wasn’t busy doing things for others. Now I relaxingly say what I want and am okay if I need to compromise. And once in a while, when I feel like it, I am very accommodating.

Case in point, here is a conversation that would have gone in a different direction if I had still been trying to be nice:

Friend: Could you give me a lift to the airport?
Me: Sure. It’s only a 15 minutes drive.
Friend: Oh, it’s not that airport; it’s the other one.
Me: You mean the one that is like an hour away?
Friend: Yes. I wanted to save money so got a flight from there.
(In my head: Ugh, so you want to save money, but are okay with me wasting my time and gas money? I don’t think so. Homey don’t play that.)
Me: Sorry, I don’t have the time. Have you considered taking the airport shuttle?

She ended up getting a ride from another friend, a very nice guy whom we both know.

Be a good friend and family member. Express your wants and needs clearly. Respect their needs and wants in return. Don’t be nice, definitely don’t be real nice, just be real.

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Acceptance: I Think And Feel, Therefore Nothing

Self No Comments

In the Anger Antidote, I spoke about how forgiveness and acceptance of myself, without anger, blame or shame, can clear the past of my regrets. Previous to that, I wrote about how in the end, it is the mental mass (of which, past regrets are a type of) that is the “real” important mass that weighs me down and should be the target for removal. At the end of that post, I briefly described a method to manage the fears of the present and the worries of the future (both are mental mass) by being aware of new thoughts and feelings and accepting them without attachment. I wanted to use this post to explore that method in greater depth.

About 4 years ago, I was reading a book, “The Not So Big Life” by Sarah Susanka, an architect and author. I had enjoyed her previous book, the “Not So Big House”, which suggests that a house is a home and that a smaller house that is designed around our lives is better. In the “The Not So Big Life”, Ms. Susanka was attempting to evolve that concept beyond architecture into the messy arena of life. When reading Chapter 9, I came upon a sentence, “I Am Not That Thought”, which caused me to re-examine some of my core beliefs.

Until then, I had believed in “Cogito ergo sum” (Descartes: “I think, there I am.”); basically, that my thoughts are me. Ms. Susanka’s sentence suggested the opposite, that my thoughts are not me. I began to question both premises and tried to be mindful of where my thoughts were coming from and their effect on me. I found that while some thoughts followed other thoughts (from “it’s nice to have a cat” to “we’ll need to get vet shots and cat food”), there were brand new thoughts that came from nowhere (while I’m playing tennis, I would think “a yacht would be hella cool to own” or “if I went into law, what happens if I fail the bar? That would suck big time”).

While watching my thoughts, I became aware that feelings exhibited the same behavior. Some feelings followed my thoughts (“if I fail the bar, I would feel bad”) and other feelings just appeared out of nowhere (“I’m sad and I can’t figure out why”). And if I attempted to explore why that feeling came into being, new thoughts were created from the feelings (“I’m pissed and it must be because of Fred forgetting about that”). My final observation is that thoughts and feelings came together, with varying strengths, and new thoughts and feelings may not have an origin.

Where do these new thoughts and feelings come from? I don’t really know; maybe from an overactive brain trying to make sense of random inputs? All I can do is to figure out how to prevent the bad thoughts and feelings from sticking to me. And stick they did, especially to similar, older bad thoughts and feelings that were already stuck on me. And once stuck, they had a life of their own, basically my life.

With practice, I realized that I could observe my thoughts and feelings as they came into being. At first, I called it “the gap between stimulus and response”; later, just “the gap” because sometimes there was no stimulus and no response. At first, the gap was very small but with practice and time, it became larger. In that gap, I had the opportunity to decide how to react to each new thought and feeling.

I learned that that best action is to accept them, good or bad. To acknowledge their existence with true acceptance, not to have any attachment as to whether they are good or bad. They just are. They exist. If you judge them, reject/deny/oppose them as bad, attach to them as good, they will get energy from you. To deny something is to attach to that thing and give it continued existence. So just don’t.

You must learn to accept those thoughts and feelings, acknowledging their existence without judgment or attachment. Once you do, those thoughts and feelings will lose their power over you. They will come and they will go. Thoughts will cause feelings (“Bob backstab me in the back, I am so angry”), and feelings will cause thoughts (“why do I feel so angry? It’s because Bob backstab me in the back”). You must accept both thoughts and feelings, and their ancestors; which are similar old thoughts and feelings that are attached to you and get re-activated by your reaction to the new thoughts and feelings. As you use forgiveness and acceptance, the old thoughts and feelings will lose power and disappear. Over time, there will be less and less past “bad” thoughts and feelings to attract future “bad” thoughts and feelings.

You may think that it is okay to be attached to “good” thoughts and feelings. But there is a dark side to that. For example, you are happy that your friend called you on your birthday and make a judgment (“gee, what a great, conscientious friend. She really cares about me”). You get attached to this judgment and set an expectation concerning your friend. In the future, should she forget to call you on your birthday, that expectation is not met and the reverse judgment may be made (“she is not a good friend”) followed by “bad” feelings toward her. Instead, be happy that she called and avoid attachments to that action. In the future, if she calls again, great, if not, no biggie.

True acceptance without any attachment is a tough skill to acquire and tougher to continue doing year after year. For help with learning what acceptance is, I suggest reading Byron Katie’s “Loving What Is”. Ms. Katie’s “The Work” is a helpful tool to explore what acceptance means. In the book, Ms. Katie uses Reality as a teacher. Most, if not all, of our attachments contradict Reality and cause friction between us and “What Is”. “The Work” involves questioning our attachments, letting them go, and accepting, even loving, Reality.

In the end, I decided that thoughts and feelings were a part of me, but they did not have to drive my behavior and being. I could think or feel something, but I didn’t have to act on it or let it affect my state of being permanently. Over time (almost a year), I learned to be okay with not knowing where new thoughts and feelings came from. I learned to let them go. I accepted their existence without attachment, briefly thought the thought and felt the feeling, decided how I would continue behaving or being, and then allowed them to stay or go as they please. If I fully accept my thoughts and feelings, don’t deny, resent, reject, or oppose them, they will usually leave as quickly as they came. Definitely, I am more than just my thoughts and feelings!

Along the way, I thought, wait a second, who is the “I” that is aware of my new thoughts and feelings? “I” seemed to exist independent of my thoughts and feelings. The “me” that observes the thoughts and feelings, and feels the sensations of my body, seemed to be different and separate. I think that this “me” is my consciousness and the self-awareness that I have read about, but have never examined directly until now.

It occurred to me that the reason I had gotten into trouble in the past was because I had not been conscious and aware of my thoughts and feelings. I had allowed them to drive me. I had been sleeping at the wheel and allowing my thoughts and feelings to wreck and ruin my experience of life. Sometimes life was good, sometimes it was bad, but most of the time, it was mediocre, because sleep walking is mediocre and that was what I had been doing. It was time for my awareness to take the driver’s seat.

I found that if I do not act on my fears of the present (by not reacting or attaching to thoughts and feelings), I avoid the worries of the future (which are projected fear). If I don’t fear the present, what is there to worry about in the future? Life got a lot better and freer. In Anger Antidote, I learned that true forgiveness leads to acceptance. And in the experience described by this post, I learned that true acceptance leads to freedom, where my self-awareness can act as it chooses without baggage (past regrets), attachments (judgments about present thoughts and feelings), or future concerns (worries). With forgiveness and acceptance, I have learned a different, better way to like and love myself, and this has opened up a way to like and love others in the same manner.

Before I end this post, I would like to throw out some questions that are currently on my mind. Could my self-awareness be more? Could the “observer” be separate from the body and thoughts and feelings? Could the “observer me” exists once my body and its thoughts and feelings are gone? By awareness, could I be talking about my soul? And finally, what happens to the “observer” when I sleep and dream?

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An Anger Antidote: Forgive Yourself

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Have you ever gotten angry, really angry at something that happened to you or something that you did? I have, and sometimes the anger is so strong that I could barely control myself. When I was young, I couldn’t even do that. I would shout, scream, kick objects, and even punch the walls with my bare fist. As I become more matured, I realized it was stupid of me to hurt myself or my surroundings over sometimes very trivial things. Nothing would have changed for the better. Thankfully this loss of control did not happen often.

Note: I focus on anger, but this post could be about any strong negative emotion about oneself or another, like shame or hate. And the method I use to handle anger works for those other emotions as well.

Anger is a strong emotion. It comes abruptly and overwhelmingly. And most of the time, unless reign in, it results in damage to oneself or others. Anger is not a “bad” emotion, it just “is”. How you react to anger determines whether you or others are hurt.

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Anger changes with your age. When young, my anger was directed outwards; I was angry at others. It was the fault of others, they caused it. Or it was the environment, misfortune, the fates conspiring against me. It was never my fault, never my responsibility. As I matured, the anger turned inward; I was angry at myself. It was my fault, I was responsible. I trusted others blindly, I didn’t plan for the unexpected, or I was too weak and powerless.

When I got tired of beating myself over and over, I learned to forgive myself. To accept that I was an imperfect human, that there was no blame, and that I can only strive to do better. That was the key to handling and dissipating the anger. If you can truly forgive yourself, you will realize that you have come to accept yourself. Acceptance without blame and forgiveness without anger are two parts of the whole. Eventually acceptance will lead you to find that you really like who you are. Once you can honestly forgive yourself, you will discover that you can accept and forgive others.

Many of you may respond that you have always been able to forgive others. In the past, I would have claimed that same. However, when I think back, I realize that it was more of a judgmental and patronizing forgiveness with repressed anger. You have done wrong, but I forgive you. Would you believe such a statement if you said it to yourself? Does it feel like true forgiveness, with acceptance, without blame, without repressed anger? After forgiving someone or yourself, do you feel the release of something heavy (experience a lightness of being) or do you harbor a bit of resentment (he got off easy)? The former is a sign of true forgiveness.

Growing up, I was taught to forgive others without being taught to forgive myself. Somehow, the adults assumed that I would figure out how to do the latter myself. Geez, leave it to the kid to figure out the more difficult part. By nature, we think the best of ourselves. It’s obvious that we are not to be blamed. It is hard to admit that we have wronged someone and to apologize, especially if we hate that person. We are especially hard on ourselves when we think we are perfect. It is not easy to forgive ourselves. But if we never learn to forgive ourselves, how can we forgive others?

With practice, I have learned to forgive myself quickly. Immediate forgiveness is required to avoid accumulating more emotional baggage. I still take responsibility, but don’t blame myself. I even forgive myself for getting angry or irritated at the actions of myself and others. When a car cuts me off on the freeway, I forgive myself for that quick flash of anger and the urge to retaliate. I forgive the action. Maybe the other person is in a hurry due to an emergency. Or maybe it’s just a not-paying-attention boneheaded move, which I am also guilty of doing in the past. If I can’t forgive the other person, how can I forgive myself for doing the same thing?

It turns out that forgiveness is the method for clearing out regrets, mental mass from the past. Regrets are past incidences where we have not forgiven ourselves or others. Most likely, we or someone had somehow violated our own internal code of conduct. These incidences are unresolved and still contain emotions such as repressed anger. They have the energy to return to haunt us continually, like heavy chains wrapped around our very being.

To clear that past junk, revisit the regrets and forgive yourself for the anger you feel. Forgive yourself for the past decisions which you believe are mistakes (decisions might only become “bad” in hindsight) and forgive the actions of others that may have hurt you. Accept and eliminate all blame. Finally, forgive yourself for having past regrets and for beating yourself over and over with those regrets through the years.

Forgiveness works for other emotions than anger. Supposed that my coworker, who is my good friend, is promoted to a level above me. It’s natural (at least for me) to feel a bit jealous and resentful. I try to quickly forgive myself for feeling jealous and resentful (without blame or shame), so that I can move on to be truly happy for my friend. Wouldn’t you want your friend to do the same when you are promoted?

We are emotional humans and thus, very imperfect and irrational. We have done and will do stupid things, sometimes immoral things, and we may intentionally or unintentionally hurt others. Forgive yourself, forgive others, accept, take responsibility, and promise to do better. That is the best that we can do.

Check out my continuing post on this topic, Acceptance: I Think And Feel, Therefore Nothing.

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