Imagine being underwater, face mask and a snorkel at the ready and rarin’ to explore what’s there. But you can’t see a thing – the water is just too muddy! In frustration, you splash with your hands, trying to push the silt down to the bottom so you can see.
Does that make any sense? Of course it doesn’t. All you end up doing is stirring up more mud from the bottom. There’s no chance for anything to settle.
While the folly of trying to clear water by pushing the sediment down seems obvious, most of us do a variation of that in our own lives.
We all want to feel good, and often we spend copious amounts of energy trying to fix what’s wrong, only to have it rear its head even stronger. My brilliant friend Molly Gordon at Shaboom! shone a light on that self-defeating cycle in her blog post, Why I’m not sucking my thumb and other happy thoughts. In it, she says:
What I’ve discovered is that it’s not negative thoughts and the moods they produce that trip us up, it’s believing that we shouldn’t have them and trying to change them when we do.
Trying to change thoughts and moods expands them. When we innocently focus on processing what upsets us, we invest emotional and mental energy in the story, and before long the story is a novel.
Her suggestion? Rather than trying to fix those uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, just be with them. Don’t feed them, but don’t try to make them go away, either. As Molly notes:
…changes in our thoughts and moods are like ripples on the surface of a lake. Nothing essential is altered by those ripples. Even if the ripples become waves, the nature of the water is unchanged.
…Irrespective of how long a painful thought or feeling has been around, there comes a moment when it is gone. Even the longest and most involved dramas unravel in the light of insight, leaving us momentarily alive to our essential wellbeing.
That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot in my own life. A big focus for me right now is self-compassion work. I can be pretty brutal to myself when my inner critic gets worked up into a lather (something that thankfully happens far less frequently these days). Bringing more self-compassion into my life makes a big difference in how much that critic has to latch onto.
For me, what Molly is talking about is a big part of where the opportunity is. The less I take whatever I’m experiencing as a hard and fast reality, the less charge it has. “Oh, there I am getting spooled up about ____ again. Yup, that’s pretty uncomfortable. Good thing it’s not permanent.”
I’m not saying that sitting and watching the choppy water will make the pain go away – at least not immediately. But it doesn’t add to the disturbance and, with time, it gives the water a chance to actually settle.
Next time you find yourself getting worked up, take a deep breath and just notice. What do you feel? What sensations do you feel? What story is running in the background. Is the source of your distress really what’s happening, or has it triggered some other story you have about yourself, others, or the world in general?
As Molly puts it, “Nothing essential is altered by those ripples. Even if the ripples become waves, the nature of the water is unchanged.” Step back and give the surface disturbances a chance to exist, and then to pass. In time, you’ll find that deep, still water once again.
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Brought to you by Curt Rosengren, Passion Catalyst TM
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