Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Learning to Respond to Life in a Positive Way

“You will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger.” ~ Buddha

Now that you have become aware of the relationship between complaining and stress, you are ready to learn how to stop complaining and learn to respond to life in a different way. Most complaints are merely reactions that we have learned and practiced over a lifetime. We were never taught how to watch our thoughts. We never knew that there was a different way of looking at life.

The difference between reacting and acting is bringing awareness to the situation. This allows you to use your free will to respond any way you choose. When you react to a situation, you are most likely repeating patterns of behavior without thought to whether your reactions are appropriate for this new situation. You are literally re-acting, or acting again, the way you have acted before. When you respond with action to a situation, you are consciously aware of what you are thinking, saying, and doing.

When a stressful situation arises, unhappy people will automatically react with negative thoughts, most of which are resisting the reality of what is. If you are unaware of your thoughts, you have no control over your reactions to life. By taking a moment to be present, you will gain awareness of your thoughts, which will give you an opportunity to choose your response instead of just reacting to the situation. You will act with awareness instead of reacting.

Let’s look at an example of the typical unhappy person reacting to a flat tire. The tire blows. Ms. Grimm starts cursing. “I can’t believe this! Now I’m going to be late! This is terrible!” After she hurriedly scrambles to find the number for roadside assistance, she calls with aggravation in her voice. She will spend the time waiting, repeating negative thoughts of nonacceptance, feeling like a victim, and possibly even calling other people to express her irritation, spreading the seeds of misery. Then she will most likely repeat the story of this event multiple times throughout the day, each time becoming upset and feeling stressed.

Now let’s see how Ms. Chipper handles the same situation: The tire blows. “Darn!” (Slow, deep breathe.) “Well, I guess I’ll call roadside assistance. There’s nothing else I can do about it.” Keeps breathing deeply and slowly as she calmly calls for assistance. Then starts to think, Boy, am I thankful that I didn’t have an accident when the tire blew! Thank God! I’ll call work and let them know I’m going to be late. And now I can call a few people that I’ve been meaning to call while I wait. She might repeat this story but will definitely tell it without negative residual emotions.

You may have had the good fortune to witness the difference between an unhappy person and a happy person in a situation. The unhappy people are always stressing themselves out and have a hard time coping when unexpected things happen. The happy people are the ones who are calm and flow with life. The flat-tire incident is a relatively big event compared to the many smaller things that pass our way in any given day. Most of the time, the events that stress people out are very small.

Let’s look at another example of unchecked thoughts, this time with something small happening. Mr. Grimm is getting ready for work. He isn’t thinking about what he is doing and spills coffee on his shirt. Cursing, he starts to rush around. As he is hurrying, he is thinking how clumsy he was for spilling the coffee and how he is going to be late. These thoughts agitate him even more. While he is driving to work he’s still thinking about being late and not really focusing on the road. Each red light he stops at aggravates him more and more, which starts him thinking about how much he hates traffic and driving. By the time Mr. Grimm gets to work, he’s in a bad mood and is grumpy to everyone he passes on the way to his desk. He has a stressful morning because everything seems to bother him. He starts to think about how much he hates his job. By afternoon, he is feeling stressed and depressed.

Sometimes a tiny event can spiral into a bad mood or even a bad day. Mr. Grimm didn’t let the emotions process quickly and in a healthy manner. So he feels irritated while trying to find another shirt, thinking about how he’s going to be late, driving faster to work, and getting more irritated at every stop light. By the time he reaches work, a small spill on his shirt has become the trigger for ruining his mood for the morning. He is unaware why he is in a bad mood. He just thinks he is having a bad day.

Now, let’s look at an example of catching your thoughts in the same situation. Mr. Chipper is getting ready for work. He isn’t thinking about what he’s doing and spills coffee on his shirt. “Oops!” (Momentary irritation. Takes a slow, deep breath) “Guess I missed my mouth! (Chuckles.) “I’ll go change my shirt.” (Feels no residual irritation about this event.) Then he starts to think, Darn, I’m going to be late now. Mr. Chipper, recognizing his reaction as a negative thought process, starts to watch his thoughts. He knows what can happen if he lets them run amok. Instead of getting upset, he thinks about having an opportunity to slow down a bit and focus on the present moment. He takes an extra three minutes to change his shirt and leaves for work. He is still focused on the moment and what he is thinking about, so as he drives to work he doesn’t rush but enjoys the twenty-minute commute, singing to the music on the radio. He focuses on driving and singing. He happily greets everyone as he enters work and has a great day.

You can see from these very simplistic examples how one thought can trigger other thoughts and create a spiral of emotion. If you can catch your negative thoughts and change them toward something different, or just release them and move on with your day, you will be taking a huge step toward improving your life. These practices take time and effort, but the more you watch your thoughts, the easier it is to see them and not let them take over your emotions.

When we react to every slight irritation all day long, the stress builds inside us. By resisting the flow of life, we condemn ourselves into a life of aggravation. It doesn’t have to be that way! You can learn to respond to life in a different way.

Here is where you can use presence. When an unexpected event pops into your day, take a deep breath and let it out slowly. This is exactly the amount of time it takes to let the momentary irritation pass through you and to become present. It’s okay to feel the irritation, but let it flow quickly and then let it go.

If you have enough presence, you will be able to stop your train of thought about whatever is bothering you. These few seconds will allow you to inhibit your emotional impulse and evaluate the situation. If it is something that you have no control over, then instead of complaining, (either in your thoughts or out loud) switch your perspective to one of acceptance. You might even remind yourself that it isn’t worth getting upset over the issue.

In his book Emotional Intelligence, psychologist Daniel Goleman formulates the skills necessary for emotional well-being. He writes,

“Emotional intelligence consists of five skills: knowing what you’re thinking as you’re thinking it; handling your feelings so that distracting emotions don’t interfere with your ability to concentrate and learn; motivating yourself, including maintaining optimism and hope; having empathy; and social skills.”

When you can develop enough awareness to know what you are thinking, and thereby respond to life in a positive way, instead of reacting you are on your way to being an emotionally balanced person. If you can make a habit of this, you’ll notice a remarkable change in your life. As a matter of fact, if this is the only lesson you ever apply from this book, then you will have the tools to eliminate stress.

When we complain about life, people, traffic, weather, or life in general, we’re not only planting weeds in our garden, we are spreading seeds of misery into someone else’s garden. Stop aggravating yourself and everyone around you with complaints!


You can respond to life in a positive way. (Stop complaining.)

This week, make an effort to focus your attention on being present and choosing to act with awareness instead of reacting to all the little things that happen in a day. Really make an effort to stop complaining out loud. The negative thoughts will still arise in your mind, but if you have enough awareness to stop those negative thoughts from being spoken, then you are making progress. Eventually, with practice it will become easier and easier to let those negative thoughts flow through your mind before they grab your attention and irritate you.

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