As a child I was indoctrinated into family belief systems like, “The rich get richer, the poor get poorer” and “You have to work hard and even then you probably won’t get ahead.” I didn’t recognize how fundamental these negative beliefs became to me until I went to college and my peers pointed them out. I had couched my negativity in terms of realism, what I believed was possible for a girl from a single parent, low-to-middle-income family in small town Virginia. But there are many forms of reality.
During college, I came to realize that the maternal side of my family connected to each other and the world through tales of pain and ailments. I know that wasn’t intentional; it was what they knew. Discussions went something like: “How are you doing? – Well my shoulder has been acting up… – What’s been going on? – So-and-so is in the hospital again… ” It was our way.
For many years now, since having this realization, I’ve been challenging the assumptions and beliefs with which I was raised and studying new ways of thought. And I am now very happy—because I choose to be.
Today I’d like to share three small mental shifts that changed my life.
Gratitude has been monumental for me. Instead of focusing on what’s wrong in life, I now choose to honor what is going right. That could be as small as having adequate shelter and food, and sometimes it is those little things that get me through.
How does gratitude work in practice? I’ll share an example from my journal a few mornings ago:
“We’re supposed to drive to L.A. today but hubby is fried. He stayed up past 4am trying to get a feature done for work. Damn, what is it about the combination of him and this company that is so challenging? Life was never like this when he worked at HP. I knew working for a startup would change things, but I didn’t expect it to still be like this 2 1/2 years in. [I allow my feelings to flow onto paper for a bit, and then I consciously switch focus…]
“I’m grateful, really. I love my husband. I’m comfortable in our little home. We live in such a beautiful part of the country and have some great friends. Ok, I’m letting go of my anger at this situation. I let go of my frustration with my husband and his choices. Everything will be fine. I take responsibility for my own happiness and productivity. All is well in my world.” [That last phrase is a nod to Louise Hay, whose You Can Heal Your Life became one of my first new thought guides.]
When it comes to changing thought patterns, I think a journal is a great practice arena. Sometimes feelings can overwhelm our thoughts. By writing my thoughts down, I feel like I am better able to replace the inherent, negative beliefs with positive thoughts I choose.
Even before I made the mental shift to gratitude, I would use my journal to document negative thoughts. Then, when I was feeling calmer, I could look back at what I wrote and apply the, “Is this true?” filter.
My journal has been a safe place to explore immediate feelings and then consciously choose how I want to feel. With practice, I’ve learned to make this shift without the journal too, in the present moment. And if I really need it, I take a deep breath and then let it out slowly while recalibrating my feelings.
Staying present, my second mental shift, can be a toughie. It’s easy to let our minds wander to the past or future and lose sight of the only place we have power: this exact moment.
A lot of people say that worry is unproductive because what you worry about rarely comes to pass. Well, I don’t know about you, but I have an uncanny ability to make happen exactly what I worry about. So I’ve had to learn to let go of worries. But being married to a worrier has taught me that I’m not a big worrier by nature.
Instead I tend to look to the future as salvation and to the past with regret. I obsess over what I’ve done wrong, what I could have done better, and feel sadness about losses, both of people and opportunities. But doing that is also unproductive. My point of power in those situations was in the past.
Overcoming our tendencies to worry or obsess is difficult, I think. More difficult than choosing to be grateful, for example, but the act of choosing gratitude can help us stay present. When we’re expressing gratitude, we’re in the present, acknowledging our surroundings.
For example, right now I’m sitting at a granite countertop typing on my laptop in our cozy Topanga, CA vacation cottage and watching my husband make breakfast. I’m enjoying the warm sunshine and cool breeze blowing through the window screens, smelling delicious bacon, eggs, and sausage cooking, and listening to birds sing. As I fully experience this moment, I can’t focus on either the past or future, and that is a good thing. I am present.
Assuming other people mean well.
You probably know I’m a volunteer CASA, a court-appointed special advocate for foster children. People often ask me how I do that, how I interact with parents whose children have been removed from their care due to abuse or neglect. I’ll tell you what I told my supervisor during the initial interview, “I believe that people do the best they can with the knowledge and understanding they have in that moment.” And yes, just like the other mental shifts above, this is a conscious choice.
Let me put this another way: I don’t believe there are bad people. I think some people do bad things or make poor choices, but doing so doesn’t make them bad people. And yes, this applies to everyone, including those who are cruel to animals, abuse children, and commit acts of terrorism or extreme violence. These individuals too are doing the best they can with their current understanding of the world which, admittedly, may be tremendously flawed. But we are all human and we all have made poor decisions.
My faith in people doesn’t mean I think they should be freed from accountability for their actions, that we should all just hold hands and sing kumbaya. I absolutely believe that we should be held accountable for our actions.
I want to assure you that I am not approaching this stance from naïveté. I know that some people intentionally harm others, and I consider those situations to be cases of wrong thinking. Something they believe has led them to think their actions are necessary for the protection of themselves, their loved ones, or society—or they lack empathy. None of these alternatives makes them bad people, it makes them human (read: imperfect) beings.
But here’s the bottom line: What does the belief that others mean well do for me?
It makes the world a friendlier, more sympathetic place. It gives me hope despite the many challenges we face as a society and planet. It makes it easier to live a happy, healthy life.
What mental shifts have you made that improved your life? Are there any of mine that you implemented with success or would like to?