“The neurotic is nailed to the cross of his fiction.” -Alfred Adler
When it comes to peace of mind each and every one of us are our own greatest obstacles. Our tendency towards reflexive thoughts and behaviors cause us to react to things without fully considering the validity or value of our reactions. As such we create unintended consequences for ourselves and others that prevent us from achieving the kinds of interactions we consciously desire. Through our life experiences we have forged a singular perspective that allows us to filter the limitless information around us so that we can respond to circumstances that threaten our well being quickly. Unfortunately that perspective is necessarily full of bias, suspicion and anxiety. It becomes all too easy to use this survival perspective in more trivial situations. Even in our minor day to day interactions we often slip into this safe/selfish mindset and think and act automatically without conscious input from our rational mind. By reacting to ourselves and others instinctually we create negative fictions which become self fulfilling prophecies. The key to kindness and contentment lies in a concentrated effort by the individual to continuously write their fictions self consciously with full awareness of our desires and neuroses.
My road to these lessons were paved in a lifetime of ham fisted attempts to forge happiness out of strength of personality. Alternately I also often just went with the flow when I knew full well that was not what I wished to be doing. These seemingly opposite responses both came from a failure to exercise my free will in a healthy, self-aware manner. As the imperviousness of youth faded I began to see the error of my ways but still required years to learn the specifics of the problematic ways in which I perceived and responded to my environment. Having built a basic understanding of this I have only in the past few years been able to begin recalibrating myself towards more favorable outcomes. It is a constant exercise in self conscious inspection of my perceptions before I choose a properly measured reaction. I have far from perfected these methods but my experience with them so far has helped make me a better person to myself and others and generated better outcomes for all. As rewarding as these improved outcomes are, the most delightful part of the whole learning process is the pride and confidence you gain knowing that you have a more self control and a greater ability to create happiness for those around you.
Lesson #1: Learn to Tell Yourself to Shut the Fuck Up
This is by far the most important lesson of them all. You must constantly be vigilant in monitoring yourself so as to become aware when you have become counterproductive or irrational. While it is obviously important to develop a filter between ones thoughts and ones mouth it is even more important to respond to your own internal dialogue. Your mind is a conglomeration of instinct and imagination that can work just as easily against you as it can for you. Most of our discontent is sown internally when we let our preferences, peeves and quirks speak above the voice of reason and understanding. Paranoia, jealousy, control, greed and many of the other negative human vices are the result of acting on those negative little dialogues in our heads. Not only is it important to recognize those voices and ignore them, but you must systematically disempower them by responding directly to them with a counter-dialogue.
Think of this as the cartoon cliche of the angel and devil who speak alternately into opposite ears. Whether you prefer to think of your conscious/rational voice as the angel and your subconscious/reactionary voice as the devil, or vice versa, matters not. You must develop a conscious, rational and self aware agency that can be used to measure and respond appropriately to the bias, automata and emotional hyperbole that is a natural (if not sometimes unwelcome) part of your human existence. Another way to think of this is as empowering your adult mind over the reflexes of our childish nature. None of us ever becomes an adult through some arbitrary boundary in space and time. Becoming a mature, wise and productive person requires the conscious effort to squash those arrested vestigial parts of our development that are prone to selfishness, paranoia and manipulation.
I most often find myself having to internalize, ‘Shut the fuck up, Josh’ when my expectations for others or for a situation are unreasonable. While it is still possible that my perception of a situation or the manner in which I would respond are more reasonable than what might occur without my input or attempt to control the situation, it may still very well be wrong on a personal, social or individual level. When the cost of being right outweighs the benefits then it becomes unreasonable not to be flexible, understanding and empathetic.
Paranoia is another way in which I must chide my negative inner voices. By thinking or acting on fears based on speculation to a degree that goes beyond caution and into the realm of delusion, we use our imaginations to create frustration, hostility and distrust and plant and nurture seeds of the undoing of our well being.
So when you find yourself caught in the inertia of negative or unproductive thinking tell yourself, specifically to ‘shut the fuck up, yournamehere’. You need the ‘fuck’ to let yourself know you are serious and by using your own name you disempower the delusion that the problem is external, when in fact you are the problem. I will often even add the reasons why I need to shut the fuck up and deliver some barbed one liners to myself. This is not an attempt to degrade or shame myself, but rather a conscious effort to address my folly with humor so that I can deal with it in a constructive manner that allows me to understand the error and laugh at myself. For every time that somebody else tells me to shut the fuck up or secretly wishes that I would (which I imagine is above average in my case), I have probably told myself to shut the fuck up a few dozen times. And the more I do it, the better I listen.
Lesson #2: The Undecided Are Internally Divided
While it may seem counterintuitive to suggest that it is important to make decisions without unnecessary haste after recommending that you weigh all considerations carefully before responding, it is an important factor in maintaining equilibrium internally and externally. It is clearly foolish to rush towards judgement or make uninformed decisions. By building an intuition based on rational understanding and emotional clarity, however, we begin to be able to afford ourselves the knowledge and trust necessary to make good decisions without intellectual wavering that cripples us from inaction. All too often we find our choices limited by our inability or timeliness in making a choice.
None of us can know the entire chain of events or consequences that will unfold from the decisions we make, big or small. There will undoubtedly always be unknown negative side effects and unconsidered bonuses arising from whatever path that we follow. The best way to mitigate the former in hopes of the latter is to set yourself upon a decisive course of action and dedicate yourself to that premise for as long as it can be shown to provide more favorable results than negative consequences. Once you have made a basic decision then the smaller decisions needed to execute your goals will become more apparent to you. And by careful experimentation you can eliminate other paths along the way that lead to dead ends. This will involve making crucial mistakes. These mistakes are essential to learn about yourself, others and the world around you.
At the same time you must remember that nothing is permanent. That you are always the agency of your own decisions and that at any time you can alter paths if it becomes necessary. In most regards you are the boundary to your own progress. Some will err in the inability to dedicate themselves to their decisions with the perseverance to make them work, while others will select a wrong path and find themselves unable to admit from and learn from their errors. This prevents them from abandoning a dead end or trudging through the impassable rather than to deal gracefully with their mistakes with dignity and humility, which ultimately obscures all that their experience may have taught them.
Yet whichever side you error towards you have forgotten that all things are transitory. Nothing is permanent. The humility, regret and shame of a bad decision is a far greater tool of progress than the narcissism of a stubborn ego. You will recover and evolve more quickly as you learn to recognize your own mistakes and faulty reasoning. Which leads us to the next lesson.
Lesson #3: Nobody Is Taking This As Seriously As You Are
Nothing is permanent. Your decisions may create tensions with those that you care about. Sometimes these external conflicts become necessary to resolve internal conflicts. Human relationships are infinitely complex and it is impossible to navigate them without encountering some rough seas. In some cases the damage between two individuals may be so great that reconciliation is not possible, but these cases are extremely rare considering the number of relationships we have with multiple individuals throughout our lifetime. It is often more likely that given some time for consideration and introspection as well as distance and healing, the problems between individuals will resolve themselves independently in those involved. Time does indeed heal most wounds. And what time cannot heal can be nurtured with renewed trust and faith when the time comes to make amends.
I have done some cruel, petty and selfish things in my life yet I have less than a handful of bridges burned in my wake. Those crossings always rebuilt themselves in time and only required I did my part to meet halfway with genuine apologies and forgiveness. We are more likely to forgive and be forgiven than not because our hurt and sorrow concerning others is proportionate to the joy and love they have brought us. That joy and love is always a path back to a healthy relationship, so we need not fear the consequences of decisions that build temporary divides between individuals. Your ability to be forgiven is in direct proportion to your ability to forgive.
We take ourselves very seriously. Because we are so aware of our own pettiness, clumsiness and distinguishing ineptitude in certain areas, we mistakenly think that others have us under equal consideration. The truth of the matter is that we are all so concerned with our own internal and external images that we are rarely distracted with the the image and behaviors of others. Our basic self centeredness keeps us so busy managing ourselves that we do not consider others as much as we come to believe they are considering us. The result is that usually nobody is as critical of us as we are of ourselves. Yet we persist in the paranoia that we are constantly being measured and judged by others. As unlikely as it may seem, this is probably for the best. By weighing how we think others perceive us we are inclined to create an image and act in ways that show basic empathy. This feedback loop of perceived image keeps us honest. What is important is that you remind yourself that nobody does, could or should take you as seriously as you take yourself. Otherwise you create delusory external pressures that prevent you from a rational and emotionally balanced outlook.
The final way in which we take ourselves to seriously seems to be a hangover from our childhood. This is the persistent underlying feeling that we will be ‘in trouble’ for our thoughts and actions. While many actions will indeed have negative consequences if they disobey basic social tenets, most of these impending feelings of doom are contrived out of irrational fear. You are an adult. Other adults have no power over you in which you have not given them the authority to exercise that power. (I am disregarding legal and professional repercussions as I am trying to address social interactions and power struggles between individuals.)
The feeling of dread is familiar to anyone who ever feels they have disappointed somebody that they respect or love. This is especially true within our families and closest friends. We fear upsetting the expectations or values of those that we care about. As a result we tend to over-exaggerate the consequences of doing so. The more we care about someone the more power they have over us and it is possible to mistake the power of love for the power of authority. As I said, this seems to me to be a psychological construct we carry from our childhood when love and authority were somewhat synonymous in our development. However, this is no longer the case. Those who love and respect you as an equal, which is the basis of any healthy relationship, also strive for your love and validation. Disappointment, hurt and confusion will always give way to acceptance. You will do yourselves and others the greatest favor in the long run be authentic and true to yourself, while being aware of the consequences that might entail and having the wisdom and courage to face them with understanding, empathy and humility.
The simplest way to maintain the awareness that nobody is taking you as seriously as you are taking yourself is often to stop taking yourself so seriously.
Lesson #4: Use Your Mind Intentionally
If idle hands are the devils tools, then idle minds are his blueprints. We are thinking creatures. It cannot be helped. Our need to interact and process is often greater than opportunities seem to allow us. When we are not consciously guiding our internal dialogues they tend towards the instinctual automatic thinking that often results in negative thoughts or anxiety. The comfort and safety afforded us by civilization has made it unnecessary to be concerned with hierarchies and survival strategies that the untended mind reverts to. Where our thoughts are not being led by our free will they will turn to petty insecurities, perceived mistreatment or imagined problems.
There is a simple solution to this. Since our minds also crave information and because we are innately curious beings we can use these to counteract mindless thinking. We have at our disposal a wealth of information unthinkable to humans of even the recent past. By engaging our minds in constant learning we not only prevent ourselves from harmful thinking but create knowledge and connections that we can use to understand and guide our perceptions and interactions. The more pieces of the puzzle you gather the greater the picture you will have to inform your worldview. The insatiable thirst for knowledge is a powerful tool when engaged consciously with a delightful voracity, while it can be a worthy obstacle when left to idle unengaged.
On the flip side it is also necessary to acquire the skill of meditative solitude so that you can synthesize the information and connections into understanding so that they can become part of a consciously constructed intuition which replaces your subconscious and unconscious instincts. Learning to enjoy silence and nothingness and becoming lost in a wealth of acquired knowledge to a degree that you can abstract it into your own language, symbols and archetypes will provide you with tools for healthy interaction and self evolution. Now you just need to learn how to use those tools.
Lesson #5: Creative Expression Is DIY Therapy
Once you are able to understand the workings of your mind and reduce parts of it to abstract symbols and archetypes you may then use them to simulate reality so that you can understand it in meaningful ways. By shuffling your deck of knowledge and laying the cards out in new random patterns you will increase your connectivity and create novel solutions for the hang ups of yourself and others.
Creative expression can take on many forms. The most powerful of these forms is language. Language helps to form the conceptual basis of our perception and worldview. From language we derive our values and goals and connect to others for both social reasons and to foster cooperation. The written word is an especially powerful tool because it allows us to view our own thoughts outside of our minds where we can be more critical of them and also more considerate. When our thoughts manifest only internally or in the form of speech we are not given the opportunity to craft or refine them to our liking. Most people have trouble expressing themselves clearly to others simply because they have not practiced on themselves first. Expression is key in understanding our own thoughts, fears and desires and being expressive in a creative way allows us the freedom to do so with no limitations or expectations.
Simple tasks like lists weighing pros and cons can help you understand a situation better. When you can expand the language of that situation into poetry, prose, lyrics, fictions or essays you expand your own understanding of it. And if you choose to share it you may invite others to add their perspective to your own to expand it even further by applying even more considerations. However most people may not be comfortable sharing their innermost thoughts and workings. If this is this case, this should not prevent you from the act of creative expression itself. The important part is doing it for yourself. If that means you keep secret journals or write stories and poems that nobody else will ever read, that is okay. The goal here is not a product; it is exploration, experimentation and examination of ones own innermost intellectual, emotional and individual constructs. And even though writing is the most powerful tool you may choose painting, pottery, dance, music or any other way of transcribing your personal symbols and archetypes into a process of self discovery. The only wrong way to do it is to not do it at all.
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