how to master our attitude:
two mental strategies towards the free will
Have you ever regretted your actions after losing control over your approach towards a situation in which you happened to be? Have you ever thought that your reactions about each situation shape your future life and define its limits?
One of the principles about human behavior and emotions we tend to believe is that harder situations naturally lead to more negative reactions (emotions, thoughts, and actions). We tend to believe that it is the difficulty of a situation that defines how we should react on each situation. Just look at how often we blame outer conditions for defining the way we react in comparison to how often we see the accountability on our side. By assigning impact to external conditions we claim that these conditions are stronger than our ability to regulate our reactions. However, the truth is that people have the potential to control their attitudes even in difficult situations. Although external conditions offer us ways we “should” react, the control over our reactions is in our own hands. Knowing this, we can decide how to approach the issues we face and thus affect our mental states and emotions. Negative thoughts and inappropriate impulsive reactions, will no longer be defining your life.
Allow me to explain through some hypothetical examples and try to focus on the emotions of both people in the following stories. Imagine there is a young child that often gets his favorite toy stolen or taken away from him. Do you agree that the child is likely to be very upset, perhaps crying every single time he loses its favorite toy? Great, me too.
Now, let’s imagine an employee who is constantly criticised by his boss. He knows he had worked so hard on his last project and craved his boss’ approval, however he was unsuccessful, again. After receiving some harsh words about his work from his boss, the employee’s frustration was so intense he left his boss’ office without a word. He did not even try to convince his boss.
What does the intensity of our emotions depend upon? PERSPECTIVE and ATTITUDE.
After looking at both examples, we can see that both people reacted to their misfortune with similar emotional intensity despite the seriousness of the events. For the child, loosing his toy was a great stressor, whereas for the adult, losing a similar item might barely have triggered. So what does the intensity of our emotions depend upon? PERSPECTIVE and ATTITUDE. This might lead you to ask, how do I develop the right perspective and attitude?
Extend your perspective. Play your game.
A great way to see things from a bigger perspective is to look at the world as if it were a board game. What do we usually do when we play a game? We see things from a bigger perspective, do not see ourselves inside of the game; we look at the game from outside in. While playing, it is easier to be open to all the possibilities that the rules and situations in the game provide us. We want to win, we play and do our best with what we get, and try to improve with each trial. In fact, that is the point of playing a board game, right? It is important to realize that this is exactly what we do in our lives. Life is like a game. I am sure you have heard this comparison a thousand times already. To better paint that picture, our difficulties in life reflect the challenges in a board game, and our belief systems act as game rules – with the only difference that we are able to change our belief systems contrary to the game rules. Belief systems frame our awareness of possibilities. In life, we often lack this perspective to analyze and notice our lives from the outside looking in as we would with a board game. We tend to react automatically without a bigger perspective, and get so overwhelmed by our problems that we lose enthusiasm to see new possibilities. Try to get this bigger perspective of your life by looking at your life as if it were a game.
Be more playful. Search for possibilities with curiosity. See your life as a continuous story leading somewhere. If it leads somewhere you do not want, change the plan of your game. The bigger perspective of your life you get, the less emotionally attached to the problematic situations you get. You will see more choices and possible consequences, which leads to less negative reactions to difficulties that come your way. You won’t be consumed by the problem as much and you can put more of your energy into finding a solution.
Become the stable heart of a tornado in the middle of storms.
Victor Frankl, a neurologist and psychiatrist claimed that, “Between the space of stimulus and responses are power and freedom to choose.” We can look at our attitude as the basic element for building our emotions, thoughts, and actions. The two main conditions for building our optimal attitude towards external world are:
THE AWARENESS OF THE ABILITY TO CONTROL OUR REACTIONS. “I know I can control how I react.” You should know it now too.
MAKING THE DECISION ITSELF TO APPLY THIS ABILITY. “I am taking responsibility of my attitude, and I will control it.”
In other words, we can be troubled by our problems and let automatic reactions lead our actions or we can take things into our own hands, into our awareness and responsible decision making, and start playing this game called life mindfully.
George Mumford, a mental coach working with professional athletes such as basketball players Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Shaquille O’neal claims in his book The Mindful Athlete: Secrets to pure happiness, that the most mentally tough athletes are the ones that minimize the effects of external conditions on their mental and physical conditions. Their mindset and physical performance stay stable. If you have ever watched any top athletes in the world performing in any sport, you will probably agree that they usually do not lose their minds in graduating moments in sport. They keep fighting (and sometimes perform better) even when things are not working in their favor. These athletes know how to keep their inner world steady regardless of challenging external conditions. The secret lies where the athletes put their attention while perceiving unpleasant conditions of the game and just before they react on it. This tiny point in time, this apparently insignificant moment is the most crucial one for what follows. The more they practice the strategy of focusing on this point, the more mentally unshakable they become in the game, and the more effectively they perform. How do we apply this know-how into our life situations?
The stimulus and response are not the only ones we should pay attention to. In fact, the most crucial factor for being able to react appropriately (like the athletes), lies in the space between the stimulus (conditions) and our response.
One of the main principles of how our world works is a principle of action-reaction. In terms of humans, psychologists talk about stimulus-response principle. Stimulus is any external condition that elicits human response – a reaction to something happening. However, stimulus and response are not the only factors we should pay attention to. In fact, the most crucial factor for being able to react appropriately (like the athletes), lies in the space between the stimulus (conditions) and our response. In that space, the control of our following reaction occurs. Normally, our reaction would be mostly subjective, personal, and judgmental – without the bigger perspective we talked about. But by giving our attention to this space lying in between, our approach becomes less impulsive and therefore less biased. By doing so, we can see things from a broader and more objective perspective that provides us more appropriate possibilities for following reactions. However, since we tend to focus only on the stimulus, we lose this potential for control to choose our (emotional and physical) response. Then, we act more like predefined programs than like humans fully mindful of the momentum. The key is in building this little space between outer conditions and your reaction. Focus your attention into this quiet point, give up the judgmental tension, and enjoy finding the best solution. To make it a little clearer, let’s imagine a tornado.
Outside the tornado there is a terrifying storm destroying anything that comes into its way. However, in the middle of the tornado, the eye of tornado, there is no devastating factor. It is actually a pretty calm, unaffected place compared to the outside of the tornado. The outside of the tornado is a play of actions and reactions. The eye of the tornado is the space between action and reaction. It is where our mind, our consciousness, and the control of your reactions on the world full of storms occur. In that space, we can choose the right approach.
What is the right approach?
- The one that guarantees effectiveness and constructiveness in your reactions
- The one that allows you to learn from your and other’s mistakes
- The one that is non-judgmental, and does allow your mind to consider other alternatives
- The one that will not allow external circumstances to control your reactions and lose yourself
- The one that will see things from a broader perspective
- The one that will prevent you from stopping loving yourself and people around
The one that guarantees effectiveness and constructiveness in your reactions
The one that allows you to learn from your and other’s mistakes
The one that is non-judgmental, and does allow your mind to consider other alternatives
The one that will not allow external circumstances to control your reactions and lose yourself
The one that will see things from a broader perspective
The one that will prevent you from stopping loving yourself and people around
why should you change anything?
You can learn how controlling your attitude affects what and how you think. Your thoughts will then develop more appropriate emotions. And since your emotions are the basis of your feelings that contribute to the choice for acting, once you change your attitude, you change your feelings and behavior.
And why should you actually change anything? Because maybe it was you, who has felt offended, who has had trouble with looking your boss in the eyes after refusing your work. And maybe it is you, who regrets these situations, because you feel that you have not completely mastered them, and have harmed yourself when these situations turned against you.
Try to create such space of control in your daily life. When you do not see this space, watch your mind. This way you will attain a bigger perspective. This perspective is the place where the option for conscious decision about your response lies. Negative thoughts, emotions, and actions will not rule your life anymore.