Every moment brings a choice; every choice has an impact.– Julia Butterfly Hill
I was deep in a worrisome thought one day, not paying enough attention to where I was walking, and I blithely stepped ankle deep into the wet cement of a freshly laid crosswalk.
I was startled, then horrified, then inner reactions just started cascading one after the other, including, “How careless! How could you have been so asleep at the wheel!” I was just about to fall into an all too familiar rabbit hole of berating myself for always being so clumsy when another inner voice piped up, “Wait a minute! So I was pre-occupied! I’m sick and tired of winding up feeling lousy about myself when I was just unconscious for a moment. For once I’d like to just deal with something and not make it all about me being clumsy.”
I stood there in the cement, noticing all these different reactions rushing through me. Years of practice by then helped me realize I did have a choice about how I was going to handle this. I picked my feet up out of my stuck shoes and stepped onto dry land as construction workers headed over to help me. As I lifted my shoes out of the cement, I tried for a little bit of compassion for myself. “Shit happens! I’m probably not the only person on the planet who made a mistake today because they weren’t paying attention. Sure, I’m a little embarrassed in front of these guys, but that doesn’t mean anything more about me than I just wasn’t paying attention.”
I walked over to a faucet conveniently sticking out of a nearby apartment building to wash off my shoes and feet. As I began to have some hope that I might even save my shoes (I did) I noticed feeling some pride that I was coping – with the outer event and with my inner reactions to it – as well as I was.
By the time one of the construction workers gave me some paper towels to dry my shoes and feet, it dawned on me: “Yes, shit happens. Life is happening in this way in this moment. But ‘shift happens’, too.” I could open to the lesson of the moment: choosing to shift my perspective allowed me to cope resiliently right there, right then. I could walk down another street. The experience also taught me, once again, right there, right then, that shifting perspectives and responding resiliently is possible, in any moment, any moment at all.
Modern neuroscience validates the power of positive thoughts, or even different thoughts, to interrupt the automaticity of negative thoughts. Re-directing our attention to something positive allows our brains to activate different circuits and shift our view. The practice of re-focusing our attention, shifting our view, and eventually re-framing our experience, over and over, strengthens the brain’s capacity for response flexibility and thus our resilience.
Here’s an exercise to replaceAutomatic Negative Thoughts (ANTs) with Automatic Positive Thoughts (APTs).
Exercise: Replacing ANTS with APTS
- Identify one habitual negative thought you would like to replace. You’re sick of it like I was when I stepped ankle deep in wet cement and almost fell down the rabbit hole of calling myself clumsy.
- Then brainstorm several different alternative thoughts to counter your negative thought. The alternative may be a directly opposite thought, i.e., “I’m lazy” becomes “I’m motivated when I’m interested.” The alternative may lead you to a different realm of thought entirely: “I’m lazy” becomes “I’m so looking forward to Greg and Diane coming over Saturday; I wonder what I’ll cook?” The alternative maybe simply be to think of someone who loves you and take refuge in feeling that love for the moment, or remembering a moment of “Sure, I can!” and being resourced by that memory.
- When you notice the habitual negative thought arising, practice using your alternative thought immediately. The longer you dwell or ruminate on an old negative thought, the more deeply grooved it becomes in your circuitry. It’s wise effort and skillful means to “switch the channel” by choosing to re-direct your attention to more positive, optimistic thinking, to shake the brain loose of an old habit and move toward greater response flexibility.
The point of ANTs to APTs is not to never react again with “I’m lazy.” It’s to interrupt the cascade of self-deprecation that immediately and reflexively follows that thought. The idea is to send the brain in another direction, which gives our mind a few moments to re-calibrate itself and open up the field of thinking-feeling again. Cultivating an immediate positive response to a negative thought creates the space to shift our perspective, supporting more flexibility and resilience. And, every time we do it, we are conditioning our brain in a more resilient direction.
The process of pro-actively shifting perspectives more and more – walking down another street regardless of the content of the hole in the sidewalk – creates more flexibility within your neural circuitry to do so. Choosing to shift becomes the new habit of the brain, and perceiving yourself as making choices not only shifts the content of specific patterns; it shifts your perception of yourself as choice maker.