There is one common denominator lurking behind every bad day I have ever had—I was externalizing. The internal dialogue in my mind was persistently attributing how I was feeling to events and individuals outside of myself. When I felt anxious, I attributed my anxiety to a problem I was facing. When I felt angry, I justified my anger by remembering something that someone had said or done. And, a bad day could turn into a bad week. When I have persistently attributed my feelings to an external event, I have shifted responsibility for my behavior onto something or someone else, and I set myself up to behave in a similar way as subsequent circumstances arise.
Notice, I wrote persistently attributed; because it takes persistence to keep a mistaken thought in place. Neuroscientist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor has demonstrated that when we activate our conditioning to trigger a thought or feeling, that reaction lingers for only 90 seconds. In other words, we must rehearse our mistaken interpretation over and over again; otherwise our thoughts will fade away. Yes, we are always mistaken. Even in the unlikely event that a troubling event did occur exactly as we remember it, and even in the unlikely event that our interpretation of the event is correct—“He did this because…”—we are still wrong. If we are angry, it’s because we chose to be angry.
A simple technique will increase your personal effectiveness and increase your happiness: Simply notice how your internal dialogue attributes how you are feeling to events and individuals outside of your own mind. Notice too, how common it is for all of us to fall into this trap. Every day, media coverage of events reinforces our choice to make these false attributions.
Consider this recent news story:
Snow plows have been out in full force in Wayne, N.J. since the storm hit. But some people who are digging out claim, some operators are plowing them right back in.
It’s causing snow plow rage.
[Ms. Y’s] husband is a public works employee. She says an angry resident attacked him with a bucket of salt.
“He sees the red face. He sees the anger in the resident. He sees the swinging bucket. And he even says, ‘Roll down that window or I’m going to bust you in the head with it.’ And boom,” she says.
She says the bucket missed her husband but shattered the passenger side window and dented the door of his plow truck.
[Mr. X] allegedly threw the bucket.
[Mr. X] says, “I wasn’t happy for my actions for that day. I was really annoyed at him and coming and plowing me straight in.”
Note: I have redacted names because they are not public figures.
Can the actions of somebody else really cause us to feel anger? To many of us, it certainly seems that way. The event (a careless act of an uncaring snowplow driver) occurs and then our feelings follow. Cause and effect seems certain to us and to most of our allies with whom we share our story. We are the hero of the story, the innocent victim; and even though we may have personally behaved foolishly, our actions were justified.
Clearly we are not responsible for the behavior of the snowplow driver. Indeed, there may be better ways to remove snow from the streets. That being said, we are always 100% responsible for how we choose to react to the events we experience.
We have all been in situations similar to Mr. X where it seemed to us as though we were merely reacting to external events. Yet, as we train our mind, we begin to see that there is a moment of choice, like the moment in which we choose to swing at a baseball pitch thrown to us. In other words, we make the choice to swing; we are not innocent victims.
A colleague says something to you. You watch your mind as it begins to put a negative meaning on what was said. You are now a choice point. From the standpoint of your ego, you have been thrown a fat, juicy pitch; and you are ready to take your best swing: “I’m sick of Joe—he is always talking to me in a hostile tone.” You now can react with what seems to you justifiable harshness or anger—or, you could choose another way. Watching your mind react, you could drop your interpretation of the event.
Going down this latter path, you don’t swing at the pitch. You choose to be happy rather than right. You release your reaction; and within seconds, the incident is over and you are smiling with your colleague. Now, I’m not advising you to stuff your emotions. Stuffing emotions means that you continue to identify with your emotions. Stuffing emotions, you continue to feel like an innocent victim, even when you do not escalate the situation by saying something.
Releasing emotions means you look at what is arising without judgment and you choose to not identify with what is arising. The part of your mind that can make this choice is the part of your mind that brings you peace, love, happiness, and insightful reactions.
Just last week, while digging out my car, I saw the snowplow driver coming down the road to make another pass. I chose to smile internally and wave cheerfully as he pushed back some more snow towards the car. He was doing the job he was paid to do; and given his constraints, he was doing it pretty well.
Yet, I can remember times when I would feel anger at the behavior of snowplow drivers. Looking back, I now understand their behavior didn’t magically reach into my mind to cause my angry thoughts. Oh no, on the days I was angered by their behavior, I was really looking for a scapegoat on which to project the anger that already existed in me. It seemed otherwise to me at the time, but I was simply not ready to accept responsibility for my angry feelings.
The cure was very simple—I had to understand what really was the cause and what really was the effect. Again, the snowplow driver didn’t magically reach into my mind and steal my peace. On the contrary, my restless mind reached into the world to find the guilty party for my decision to not be peaceful. In other words, in my mind, I made a decision to be angry. That decision was the cause of my interpretation of the behavior of the driver; my interpretation and the feelings that accompanied it were the effects of my decision to be angry.
Your experience of a situation can be transformed instantly when you understand what is really the cause and what is really the effect. If a cause no longer exists because it is dropped, the effects must disappear. Often a smile will cross your face; immediately, you will be able to release your emotions as you realize that you are not upset for the reason you think.