We sure do approach life in some funny ways sometimes. A friend locked her keys in her car the other day. (I'll use her as an example instead of the time when my dog stepped on the button and locked me out of my car this past summer or the times, plural, I jumped out of the car to take a picture and locked the doors with the engine running.) My friend told people about the misfortune. It was sort of a special, negative event, not at all what was expected so it became a focus. Been there and done that? We all have. Let's assume we all lock our keys in the car at one time or another. Let's say it happens, oh, I don't know, once every 8.5 years. That's once every 3102 days, give or take a leap day.
What she (and I, and you) don't focus on is the 3101 days, give or take, when we DON'T lock our keys in our car.
This is called a "negative feedback loop." Might also be a "cognitive distortion" called "discounting the positive."
What would it do for us if we turned that thinking around 180 degrees? First, let's get a few more examples out there.
Today, November 21, 2011, is a perfect day. The sky is blue and even though the leaves have fallen, there is a certain kind of beauty to the starkness. Out my window I can see a gray-green spruce magnificently crowned with light brown cones. Chippies are scurrying about, cheeks full of seeds. It's close to 60 degrees. It's a perfect day, I think. There's a test I've done on days like this saying to people I meet: "Isn't this a magnificent day??!!" Over the years, I've learned I can count on about 50% of the people responding: "Yeah, but we'll pay for it later."
A friend I know built a beautiful deck. When he showed it to me and I complimented on how great it was, he said, "Yeah, but look over here where I cut this notch wrong." I never would have noticed.
Here's a hypothetical (yeah, right) situation: A young kid yells to Mom: "My school sweatshirt is in the dirty clothes and I need it today! I never have what I need!"
Amazing how we crank up the woes, misfortune and misery, isn't it? And we do it in the face of good situations that vastly outweigh the bad.
Here's why. We have in our minds, consciously, semi-consciously, and sub-consciously, how things "should" be. We have pictures of perfect relationships with all the people important to us, having all the stuff we want, important principles to live by (Like "I shouldn't have to deal with keys locked in my car!") I suggest you give this some serious thought it is extremely helpful and healthy to be able to identify what all those important things are.
Soon as you have this perfect world in mind, contrast it against the real world you are facing right this minute. Imagine a scale with the perfect world on one side and the real world on the other. Is it in balance? Probably so in some areas, most likely not in others. But the way we're "hard-wired," we pretty much ignore everything that is in balance yet we are really aware of areas that are out of balance. After all, there's no need for actions or thoughts to correct the perfect stuff; that's the way stuff should be! But soon as the real world throws us a curve, the scale swings out of balance, sometimes wildly, and we get frustrated, depressed, angry.
There are levels of the chaos and unhappiness that our "out of balance scales" cause. If I lock my keys in the car in the driveway of my house done that too., it's a very minor inconvenience. If I was traveling and didn't have an extra set handy, uh-oh major catastrophe.
It's tempting to say: "Hey, life has its ups and downs." True enough, but if you want to get through the "downs" a little easier, here's a simple way to do that. Pay more attention to the "ups." One way I've heard this expressed is: "Develop an attitude of gratitude." And think of that great, 40's swing tune: "Ya' Gotta' Ac-cen-tu-ate the Positive!"
Here's a New Year's resolution I'd like you to consider. In the course of a typical day in 2012, there will dozens if not hundreds of things that go just as they're supposed to. Our mental image of "how it should be" will be satisfied and we literally don't give this another thought. (Therein lies the problem.) And as sure as I am of that, I am sure that when something goes wrong, we will focus a lot of energy on the frustration, discomfort, and misery it causes us. Let's resolve this year to take the whole balance idea into consideration. As soon as we inventory and celebrate everything that goes right, we'll be in a much better frame of mind to deal with the few things that go wrong.
Gary Lester, M.S., R.T.C., is the executive director of Family Services of Warren County-a charitable agency that helps people solve problems and be happier through counseling, substance abuse services, and support groups. Learn more about this important work at www.fswc.org.