This set of cards covers a series of principles drawn from some of the adapted lessons of Stoicism from Happy that have been trying to apply to change my mindset.
This isn’t about denying negative feelings or seeking to suppress them but making small changes to my perspective to allow me to focus my attention and energy on what matters rather than inconsequential irritations or events outside of my control.
Again, it’s not to say that this is about accepting a bad situation without changing it. That’s not it at all, rather it’s about being realistic about chances of success (and even rethinking what success means) in some of these bigger challenges and what my role in that should be.
If you are pained by external things, it is not they that disturb you but your own judgment of them
This can go from the mundane to the significant and everything in between. When I feel that spark of irritation about anything I try to recognise it as exactly that. It’s a spark that threatens to ignite a fiery anger. I try to make a conscious effort to take a few seconds to assess whether it’s worth getting angry about. Call it the EastEnders Protocol (“leave it Phil, he’s not worth it!”).
Most of the time it isn’t. I think of all the time wasted stomping to work getting worked up about something I have seen or heard and how in some cases it’s then go on to dominate my thoughts throughout the day (“…and ANOTHER thing!”) and for what? Did anything change as a result of my ranting about it? Did it make me feel better? Probably not. Now if I had taken that fire and directed it something that truly mattered to me that would have been a different story. A better story and one better for my mental health and those around me.
Don’t try to change things you can’t control
This is one of the critical areas and one of the main questions I ask of myself when I feel things start to slide or that I’m getting upset, angry or anxious. Is this in my control? In any given situation there’s all manner of variables at play that can potentially affect the outcome. Most of them are out of my control. What is in my control are my thoughts and my actions. Pretty much everything else is out of my control and trying to change someone else’s thoughts or actions is not always going to work.
In his book, Derren Brown gives the example of going to a party and meeting new people to illustrate this. The common scenario is that he may go to a party, meet new people and be anxious to impress and have people like him. When this falls flat then the failure leads to self-recrimination and loathing. This is wasted effort. An alternative approach is to change the way he looks at the event. He can control his thoughts and behaviour and in doing so can present the best possible version of himself at that time. If after doing that someone still doesn’t like him rather than beat himself up over it he can feel at ease that he did the best he could (aiming to try).
The important thing here is that this isn’t about giving up, in the example above he does all he can to influence the outcome but the main thing is to be more at peace with whatever the outcome is. It may be that the whole thing is dismissed as a bad debt or it may be that on reflection there are things that can be tweaked in future encounters to change the outcome.
This can be as true of parenting as it is for fighting our corner with the doctor during the miscarriage. So much of my anger afterwards was about things outside of my control but with help I could see I did all I could in the given situation with the parts that were within my control.
Don’t add to first impressions
This is another one I try to bear in mind when I start to craft elaborate psychodramas around the motivations and behaviours of others, wasting hours on pointless (and largely baseless) speculations. The problem is that it’s often fun to speculate as it indulges the mistaken belief that I have some sort of insight into the minds of others.
One way to check this tendency is to remember how it feels to be on the other end of it when someone mistakes one of my frequent cock-ups with some deeply complex conspiracy.
Going back to the anger point, indulging in this pointless speculation runs the danger of fuelling the fire by raking over the past to find further evidence of past hurts to justify my rage. Often many of the things that anger me are the things I have done to others too.
This is a misleading description calling into mind deep breathing and zen states but it’s more about taking my tendency to create elaborate psychodramas and make it more useful. If I know I’m facing a difficult day because it involves a difficult event or person, I try and play out different versions seeing what I can change about how I approach that interaction before doing so in real life. This allows me to see if I’m getting sucked into ‘catastrophising‘ the situation or if I’m being unfair to myself or others.
The temptation at night is to fall prey to this:
Fun as that is it doesn’t help me sleep or feel better. An alternative suggestion is to try and use the moments before sleep not to worry about what tomorrow will bring or what has annoyed me but review the day in a more useful way.
It almost feels like work or a mini-appraisal but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It allows me to think about my day rather than let it turn into an amorphous blob blurring into the next. I try and take this approach with the kids too especially if they have the time leading up to bed time doing questionable things that test all the skills outlined in the series!
Third person perspective / rehearsing in first person
This is another useful tool to shift habits of thinking and perception to something more positive. The idea is that when we think back to an unpleasant or traumatic time we tend to experience it in the first person. We see it through our eyes, the sounds and smells may be more vivid and as a result we feel it more.
I can easily picture the hospital room, the operating theatre and teddy bear stuffed morgue in a heartbeat. I can hear the beeps of machinery, the muffled sounds of the maternity ward around us and the cold, frozen viewing room.
When thinking of a happier time chances are I’ll picture it in third person, almost as though it’s a photograph or a film of that time. It may make me smile but it won’t have that immediate emotional feel of the more unpleasant times.
By reversing the approach I can give distance and perspective to the unpleasant times and enjoy the happier times more. That’s not to say that there are times where I won’t welcome the depth of feeling that comes with the first person view of the past, sometimes I may crave it as a means of strengthening my connection to that short time I did have to hold my sons but again this is about making a choice in how I experience those memories. There may be times that such a deep experience may be too distressing and too raw even after nearly seven years.