Sunday, July 13, 2008

How Your Mind Stresses You Out?

Recently a friend of mine in her mid-30s decided to ask for a raise. Even though she’d worked with the company as a graphic designer for years and was long overdue for a pay increase, she was overcome with self-doubt. Every day as she drove to work, she would agonize and obsess as conflicting voices and feelings battled it out inside her.
In particular, she kept rehearsing her upcoming conversation with her boss and reviewing all the things she’d done to make her worthy of more money —the projects she’d completed, the successful ads and brochures she’d designed. Sometimes she would emerge from these imaginary conversations feeling triumphant; other times she would emerge crestfallen and defeated. As she listened to all this mind chatter, her feelings fluctuated wildly, from excited and confident to afraid and uncertain.
At times, she could hear a barely audible voice (sounding suspiciously like her father’s) arguing that given her overall ineptitude, she didn’t deserve a raise and that she was lucky to have a job at all. In response, she would feel ashamed and hopeless.
Next, an angry, vindictive voice would step in, arguing that her boss was an ungrateful autocrat and she should barge into his office and put him in his place. Then a confident, affirmative voice would remind her how much she had contributed at work and what a fine person she was overall. Finally, a voice that sounded a lot like her mother’s would counsel her to stay calm and unruffled and be thankful for whatever crumbs life sent her way. After nearly a week of intense inner struggle and stress, during which she had difficulty sleeping and could barely function at work, my friend finally made an appointment with her boss. Filled with conflicting emotions, she entered his office — and was immediately offered a raise even larger than the one she had planned to request! As it turned out, all the images, emotions, and ideas her mind and body had churned out over the days leading up to the meeting had no connection with what ultimately happened.
Does any of this sound familiar? Like my friend — indeed, like just about everyone I know, including me! — you may spend much of your time engrossed in the captivating but ultimately illusory scenarios fabricated in the original “fantasy factory” (the one that predates Disney and Lucasfilm) —that is, the neocortex.
One moment you may be worrying about the future — how am I going to make enough money, orchestrate a great vacation, impress my lover, amuse my kids — and you’re lost in a reverie filled with hope and fear. The next moment, you may be obsessed with the past — why didn’t I tell the truth, take that job, accept that proposal — and you’re overcome with regret and self-recrimination.
And like my friend, you may have noticed, much to your chagrin, that you have remarkably little control over the worrying, fantasizing, and obsessing your mind generates. Instead of having thoughts and feelings, it may often seem that the thoughts and feelings are having you! The reason these thoughts and feelings seem uncontrollable is that they spring from a deeper story or life script that may be largely unconscious. For example, you may hold the subliminal notion that nothing you do is quite good enough, so you push yourself anxiously to make up for your shortcomings. Or, quite the contrary, you may believe that you deserve more than you’re getting, so you’re unhappy with what you have. Perhaps you believe that you’re inherently unattractive, so no matter how much you compensate, you feel embarrassed and uncomfortable around the opposite sex. Or maybe you see intimate relationships as inherently threatening, so you do all you can to avoid being vulnerable.
Your inner story or drama has a powerful momentum that carries you along, whether you’re aware of it or not. Sometimes it may seem like a tragedy, complete with villains and victims. At other times, it may seem more like a comedy, a romance, a fantasy, or a boring documentary. The point is, you’re the center around which this drama revolves, and you’re often so enthralled by the scenery that you can’t really see what’s going on outside, in the real world around you.
As a result, you may be constantly acting and reacting excessively and inappropriately, based not on the actual circumstances but on the distorted pictures inside your brain. (If you’re like me, you’ve no doubt had moments when you suddenly woke up, as though from a dream, and realized that you had no idea what the person you were interacting with really meant or felt.) Besides, you risk missing entirely the beauty and immediacy of the present moment as it unfolds.
As I mentioned earlier, it’s this inner drama that causes most of your suffering and stress, not the experiences themselves. Not that life doesn’t serve you up your share of difficult times and painful situations or that the homeless in American cities or the starving children in Bosnia don’t really suffer. But the mind often adds an extra layer of unnecessary suffering to the undeniable hardships of life by interpreting experience in negative or limited ways.

No comments: