Good morning my friends. I often talk about happiness being a choice, and how we need to learn to sharpen our tools to make it possible to choose happiness. I think perhaps the most important factor in this equation is guarding our thoughts, so I thought maybe we could touch on that today. This may be the singlemost important factor in choosing joy, simply because it sets you up to sharpen all of the tools necessary to choosing contentment.
So what does it mean to control your thoughts? I am sure many are reading this thinking “I can’t help what pops into my head”. But, you can. I hope to show you how to do that today. Negative thoughts are always bound to pop up. The enemy at work. The enemy lying to you. But you can overrule them. You can decide that they are lies and you can push them out. It is a critical skill and if you want to master happiness and sustainable contentedness, then it is a tool you must start sharpening right now. It is not as hard as it sounds, and like any skill, the more you practice it, the easier it becomes, until eventually it is habit to look for the positives. To find yourself on the brighter side of any given situation. It is rising above the negativity and lies, and choosing to find a reason not to succumb to them.
It is the action of rejecting the “poor me”. Let me see if I can give an example or two. I know a mom. She has three beautiful, healthy children. She has a loving partner who is there for her. She owns her home. I am sure she has many, many other blessings (a car, food, clothes, and a three month surplus of diapers stacked in her kids bedroom, are just a few examples that come to mind). But, she only see’s her “poor me”. Consistently she talks about how miserable her life is. How she lacks worth and how no one cares for her. I happen to know her family very well, and there is no truth to this. They love her, support her, and are there for her every time they can be. However, if she wants something and there is no one there to comply, she starts projecting shame and blame on those very people who love her so unconditionally. So, healthy people learn to draw boundaries. If there is a day that someone draws a boundary and can’t drop their lives to come give her what she perceives as a “need”, she freaks out, publicly and loudly, about how awful her family treats her and how no one is there for her and blah blah blah. It is quite tiresome to read day in and day out actually.
What she doesn’t realize is that she has a choice. She can choose to take that one little moment where she didn’t get exactly what she wanted, hate and blame the world for not giving her what she wants, and spend the day in a miserable rage about how no one loves her and everyone sucks, or she can chase out those lies. I know her family very well. I have seen how much they do for her, how much they care for her, and how proud of her they are. It is her choice, and hers alone to handle this situation as she see’s fit. However, its possible that she would have a whole lot more joy in her life if she could approach it more like “Oh dang, everyone has to work today. Its really too bad that no one can watch the girls while I run to the store. I am so thankful that I don’t have to do this alone every time”. Or “Crap, mom the babies sick and I really need some toilet paper, no one around to help right now. I would be so thankful if you could grab me a pack after work”. Instead, we all get a tirade about how no one loves her, everyone hates her, she can’t count on anyone, and everyone can screw off. Somehow, I don’t see that public tirade making many want to help her in the future, and so, her stinking thinking defines how tomorrow will go. How things will go next time she needs help. Our thoughts control where we end up. Somehow we need to let go of the notion that life is out to get us when it doesn’t go exactly as planned, and figure out how to find a blessing in it. If we constantly put down the ones who can’t just drop everything and be there for us every single time we ask, how much will they help us in the future? Who will even want to be around us? And our thoughts perpetuate a future. If we spend our days looking at unfortunate events as just that, no more, no less, we can find gratitude and a bright side to it.
Now, on the contrary. Add a bit of gratitude and patience to the situation and it becomes an entirely different path. A little perspective, if I may. What if she turned that shame filled pity party into gratitude. “Oh thank God I have so many people on my side. One of them will be off work in just a few short hours and can help me then”. It isn’t life and death, and if it is, then 911 is the appropriate answer. If she was showing gratitude, then perhaps someone would be happy to help just as soon as they had time. And the cycle continues. Show people you appreciate them, and they will continue to help you. Shame them, and they will walk away. A simple, but obvious example of how our thoughts determine our future.
If we spend our days focused on the “can’t, but, won’t” thought process, we never will. But if we spend our days in the “can, yes, will” thought processes, eventually, success will be ours. Its just simple fact. It may not seem true when you are stuck in the stinkin thinking mindframe, but with a little practice, you can force yourself to overcome this mindset. I am positive of this, because there was a time in my life that stinkin thinkin was all I knew. I was sure that God hated me, the whole world was against me, I couldn’t count on anyone, and I would always fail. Moments of joy were fleeting and always stolen by the enemy and his lies. It constantly felt like “one step forward, ten back”. My life was full of words like “never” and “no one”. Poor me. I would let my emotions consume me. Disappointment felt like defeat. Let me tell you, the two are not one and the same.
The choice belongs to you and you alone. Do you choose to let your emotions rule you? To define your reality? Or can you step outside of the box and see the bigger picture? Is the situation going to kill you? If not, there is a good chance that you might be overreacting. This is training in our brain, and like any habit, it takes hard work and determination to overcome it, but it is still a habit, and habits can be changed. For me, It looked like years and years of therapy and hard work. I had to learn how the amygdala worked and some days no matter what I tried, I could not force those emotions into a reasonable place, until I learned to walk. For me, the only way I could find to break that pattern was to physically force it away. This was perhaps one of the hardest things I ever had to learn to force myself to do. When you are full of rage and shame and pity, there is nothing you want less than to bundle up your kids and go for a brisk walk. Heck, even without the kids, it can be so incredibly hard to pick yourself up and decide you will not tolerate these awful thoughts for one more minute. The thing about stinkin thinkin, and being so consumed by an emotional response, is that you are essentially in “fight or flight” mode. Our body pumps chemicals into our body that tell us to fight or flee when our situation seems unhealthy. This mechanism is intended to be of short duration, just long enough to get us to safety. When we are stuck in an emotionally driven state, these chemicals pump constantly and are very unhealthy for us. Walking forces them to stop pumping. A brisk walk, or any other exercise that gets your heart rate elevated for at least twenty minutes, signals to your amygdala that the threat has passed, and triggers rational thought. When it becomes habit to live in this emotionally controlled state, we can’t always just talk ourselves down. For me, it took many weeks of forcing myself to get that heart pumping every time the negative thoughts overwhelmed me. I had to retrain my brain that that was not how we were going to live. I had to train my brain to do something different than what it was doing. I had to teach it that the amygdala is not for every day use, it is for emergencies only. Fight or flight. Life or death. When your every day thoughts are controlled by emotion, it becomes pretty clear that you must retrain your brain in order to see a change. No one wants to go around with a “poor me, life sucks and will never get better” attitude, but until you choose to physically take control of it, that is all you will get out of life.
If you want to thrive. If you want to choose joy, then you have to kick out the “can’t, but, won’t” attitude, and physically force new thought processes. Exercise is the most effective tool I know for this. The first two or three times it will be hard. Your pissed. You don’t wanna walk. You want to live in this self righteous, “screw everyone” place. It feels justified. You feel like “why should I have to be the one to change?” Well. Reality is simple. If you want your life to change, only you can make it happen. You can not expect others to do it for you. Its so hard to get up and force yourself out of that self righteous place, find some humility, and decide to walk. But after a few times, the relief you feel becomes apparent, and there comes a day when it is the only solution. When pity isn’t an option and you must walk now. I can already hear it. “BUT I CANT walk now. I have the kids. Its snowing. My foot hurts”. Well, there is the “but, can’t won’t” that I speak of. As long as you are making excuses, nothing will change. Do some sit ups. Jumping jacks? Jump on the bed. Yoga or Tai Chi. Turn on some music and dance. There is always an exercise you can do. Always. Stop making excuses and find one that will work for you right now. That is how you take control of being emotionally and irrationally driven. Nothing works faster. Nothing works better. Your brain learns new behaviors and soon you walk because you want to. Because it feels good and your body knows the relief of stopping the fight or flight mechanism physically. It becomes a longing to walk, just to control the thoughts. Eventually, your brain retrains effectively and you don’t need this at all. Eventually, you get to exercise simply because you want to. Eventually you learn to react with reason and patience and gratitude. Eventually you overcome the stinkin thinkin and are able to apply the positive thoughts without a forced mechanism at all.
And one day, you will wake up on the wrong side of the bed, or life will throw you a curve ball, and rather than freaking out and allowing your emotions to dictate your behavior, you will have the skills to let your behavior dictate your emotions. You will assess a situation with ration and reason. You will have control over your mind and be able to tell those stinking thoughts go away, and you will identify the reasons that they are lies. You are the only person who can affect the changes in your life. If you walk around all day thinking “poor me, life sucks” well, simply put, life is bound to keep sucking. You will walk around defeated and ineffective. You will waste your time ranting and raving about situations that are “beyond your control”, and then later, dwelling on the shame and embarrassment of your tantrum. If you force yourself to consider your blessings, it only stands to reason that your life will be blessed. No one can change your life’s circumstances for you. You must be the change you wish to see. If you want joy and blessings, then you must be willing to see them in your life. If you want to feel good, then you must choose to feel good. We all have the choice. We can wake up and spend our day dwelling on the burdens, or we can wake up and chase those negatives away with gratitude for our blessings. If you have trained your brain to focus on the negatives, to be controlled by emotion, then you must reprogram your thoughts. Sometimes it takes actual, physical effort, not just mind control. Sometimes you have to get your heart rate up long enough to chase those awful thoughts from your mind, and allow rational ones in. And sometimes this takes a physical routine for days and weeks on end to reprogram you, but only you can decide how you want your brain to work and do something about it. Only you can decide to be the change you wish to see in your life, and take the steps required. Happiness is your choice, but it isn’t just about choosing. Sometimes it is about reprogramming. It is about accountability and taking control of your own life. The choice is yours. What will you choose?