A few weeks ago, I had occasion to catch up with a coworker I’ve known for 10 or 15 years now. We don’t talk as much as we used to and it was good to hear from her; good to learn of all that was going on in her corner of the working world. Then she relayed the story of what had made her think of me – what had made her call. It seems that while traveling with an ex-coworker of mine, a man I haven’t known all that long, but have shared projects with, he gave her the impression that he didn’t value my contributions much. I’m sorry to report that it really put a hole in my day. For the better part of an hour after her call I brooded on what this guy must think of me.
I sat for while envisioning the conversation – his voice inflexion, facial expressions, gestures. I replayed the words – each time through rewriting and refining his dialog to make it as degrading as I imagined it to be. Then I began the fictional future confrontation with this guy; what all I was going to say to him when I saw him next. (Sound familiar?) Only then did I realize how mindless I was being. Ha! What a total waste of time.
I know this fear – the fear of acceptance. I know it very well. And although I lost an hour of time I won’t get back, I also know that there is some rudimentary biology working against me here.
The threat I sensed was registered in my amygdala, the part of my limbic brain which translated this fuzzy thing called a “thought” to a biological/physical reaction. In seconds, my nervous system went into full alert, all jacked up on epinephrine and norepinephrine.
I’m under attack – going to DefCon 1 – so everyday functions forfeit their priority.
Blood is directed to my heart and large muscle groups.
My pulse quickens.
My blood pressure rises – I’m ready to fight or flee here.
But fight what, exactly? Run away from what?
So now my neocortex, the part of my brain that’s responsible for rational and analytical thought, begins to consider things. And my imagination is just good enough to envision the worst. I end up scaring myself more – and the whole process begins to repeat itself.
I recognize it all now, but there’s no telling how much time I’ve wasted in my lifetime lost in this endless cycle of mindlessness. I wasn’t under attack. In fact, I was sitting on the same couch I was when the phone rang in the first place.
Should you find yourself anywhere in the vicinity of my awful example, here are two things to help you break free:
Short-Term Tactic: The Thought Experiment
Acceptability comes in many forms: shame, shyness, etiquette, prudence, perfectionism. No matter what you choose to call it, the impact is to limit, constrain and conform. Concerns over “fitting in” often contribute to small, risk-averse thinking. So for a quick fix, you can return to the present with this thought experiment: “People see all things differently.”
If I like something, I have to imagine that you might not like it. I also have to consider that I may not know what you think about it at all.
How you seem and how you actually are may be two totally different things. How your product or service is portrayed or envisioned and how it actually is may be two totally different things. And what we’re thinking (fearing) and what actually is, is just as likely to be way off the mark.
The key to letting go lies in giving myself permission not to know. The conclusions that others reach have more to do with them anyway.
I’m probably not the first to point out that the same people that you think are judging you are not perfect themselves. I’m also not likely to be the first to point out that people don’t really care that much about you (sorry about that). Yes, we all interact with one another and affect one another, but none of us bases our entire lives around others. We always move on – to ourselves.
Here are few questions you can ask yourself to reframe acceptance issues: Do you give others the benefit of the doubt? Have you ever been surprised by a second impression? Do you ever try to look for the good in others? Their products? Their services? Every tried a food you didn’t originally like for a second time? So you’re a complex person? One last question: What makes you believe that others are any different?
Long-Term Tactic: Let it Be
Becoming aware that we aren’t the self we thought we were is a hallmark of mindfulness. It generally begins with the realization that “our thoughts are not facts.” Just because we think something doesn’t make it true. And the thoughts themselves may be beyond our responsibility – products of our environment, experiences, emotions, biology, etc. There are two immediately recognizable benefits to this awareness:
First, we can forgive ourselves a little, recognizing that our situations and reactions aren’t always freely selected. We can view ourselves a little less critically, and, seeing that the same is true for others, we can be a little less critical of them too.
Second, just because things feel difficult does not mean that we are fundamentally broken. Situations, like thoughts, change. And we are not in control of it all. I can’t will myself not to age or get sick. I can’t prevent pain any more than I can command myself to be happy regardless of circumstance. There are inevitable parts of my life that I simply don’t like much. But that’s no reason to take it so personally.
When I sense my mind growing cluttered and growing more included to judge, one of my favorite activities is to awaken early and watch the sunrise. It’s a wonderful reminder that no matter what I’m thinking, no matter what I want to happen, things change (literally going from dark to light) and the world goes on completely outside of my control.
Letting things be is about stopping the doing. Letting go is doing something – it requires effort and energy. Here is an example: Imagine that you are holding a pen in your hand and want to let it go. In order to put the pen down, you have to be holding it. When you continue to want to put it down, you have to “continue” to hold it. And the more effort you apply to “wanting” to let go, the more your grip persists. Instead, just relax your grip and it will fall away.
The mind’s job is to think – and it never stops. That’s just want it does. But the thoughts we have are not facts. So when you find yourself pursuing a mindless thought path, acknowledge the thought or the theme, then let it be. Return to the present. It’s not that hard – you’re already here.