Imagine this: You leave in the morning to drive to work and you encounter traffic on your commute. When you arrive to the office you discover that your day is scheduled with meetings and mundane tasks. You have plans to meet a friend for coffee during your lunch break and she unexpectedly cancels. Later in the afternoon you receive a call that there’s been an indication of fraud on your credit card so you need to cancel it and order a new one. You stay late at work to finish a project and by the time you leave you’re too tired to exercise or cook the nutritious meal you promised yourself you would. That night, you call someone you’re close with and vent about your day.
You vent so much that you leave the conversation feeling even more upset about your current situation. You start to tell other people, sometimes casually and unintentionally and other times purposefully and with bottled-up emotion, about the tedious work assignments, flaky friends, and absence of relaxation in your life. You begin to memorize your words; with each complaint you make, the speech about your problems becomes tighter and more eloquent.
Eventually, you become so accustomed to delivering this same spiel in a knee-jerk reaction to any question in the area of “how’s your life?” that you start to believe it. You’re not necessarily upset about anything, but you know for certain this is how things exist for you. In fact, you are so sure that whatever happens to you is your absolute reality that you begin to look for the problems you’ve had in the past to show up in your life again. When the problems do arrive, you feel a kind of sick satisfaction at being able to foresee these issues. “I knew it,” you think. And then you tell other people: “Just like I thought."
This phenomenon of convincing ourselves of the problems we have, then inadvertently manifesting these problems in our lives as a result, occurs too often. It’s only now that I realize I’ve done this in various scenarios and formats throughout my life, employing my persuasive powers to convince myself things were worse off than they actually were.
Skipping a few runs because I was strapped for time became “I’m too busy to incorporate running into my schedule right now.” Having a tough couple weeks adjusting to life at home one summer during college became a permanent belief that coming back home is always a trigger for sadness and uncertainty.
Lately, I’ve been trying to pause and reflect when I feel myself growing indignant at whatever issue I think I’m faced with. I ask myself this question: Do I really have the problem I think I have? Or is it something else?
Do I really not have time to run anymore? Is life at home actually as uneventful and unfulfilling as I make it out to be? The answer is usually always no. Sometimes the case is that we’ve magnified our problems to an unnecessary and untrue proportion; other times, we use these problems to mask an underlying truth we’re unwilling to acknowledge.
But if we can ask ourselves this question each time we’re faced with a situation we find to be overwhelming, frustrating, unfair, or impossible, we are much more likely to see a way out of the problem, or to understand that the problem doesn’t exist as we think it does. Dwelling on our issues is like standing at the top of a dark basement staircase and staring down into the darkness unaware that the light from the open door is behind us. All we need to do is turn around and walk out the same way we walked in; we are never trapped anywhere.
The concept is new to me, but each time I find myself whining or lamenting about an issue in my life, however minor, I try to take a moment to examine my thoughts and decide whether or not they’re true. As Byron Katie says, “Don’t believe everything you think.”
Asking ourselves the question “Do we really have the problem we think we have?” isn’t easy; but cultivating that habit is the difference between remaining stuck in our own imaginary drama and moving forward totally unbound by it.