How we see a situation makes a difference in how we feel about it.
Both Ahmed and Ali are practicing their English speaking. They both are in the same class, learning with the same teacher, and living in similar socioeconomic circumstance. They both speak English at a similar level.
Both of them had make mistakes and were laughed at by their peers. However, Ahmed was pretty happy about it, while Ali was disappointed. Ahmed intended to try again next time and do better. Ali simply gave up.
Isn’t it interesting how two individuals experiencing the same bad situation can react to it in two opposite ways? Shouldn’t they feel the same emotion, given that they experienced the same bad situation?
Similar events that happen to people should produce similar reactions from them. Right? That seems logical, like 2+2. But in our daily life, we don’t consistently see that happening. Two people lost a leg, but one is living life normally and the other is spiralling down into deep depression.
I think we are looking at this the wrong way. We are focusing our attention of what happened. Emotion doesn’t follow what happened. Rather, emotion follows our perception of what happened. How we see the event will determine how we feel – not the event itself.
Ahmed saw their friends laughing at him as a form of challenge, and he wanted to prove to them that he can improve in his English speaking. On top of that, Ahmed didn’t take their laughter seriously and decided to laugh along with them. Why not? If they think he’s funny, then he should laugh too.
Ali, on the other hand, saw their friends laughing as a sign that he is not worthy enough. He feels that he should not try something that he is not good at. He feels embarrassed by his actions and he decided to just stop trying in order to avoid further embarrassment.
Both Ahmed and Ali experienced the same situation, but both feel the opposite emotion. All because of how they perceived the situation in the beginning.
The process of forming a perception about a situation can be instantaneous and most probably unconscious. It follows the framework that we already built inside our minds. It is a framework of how to interpret the situation.
It’s automatic and there’s a good reason for it.
Having this framework means that we don’t have to sweat out our brains thinking about the process every single time. Having it on automatic mode makes life easier for us, takes less time, and requires less energy. It is convenient and we love convenience.
But what if the framework is problematic to begin with? A problematic framework will produce a problematic emotional reaction when something bad happens. The framework will impede the individual’s ability to recover from the event and to move on.
Our mind is a powerful thing. Though it can’t change reality, but it surely can change how we perceive reality and how we feel about it. So we need to train the mind to perceive reality in a more positive light, even when bad things happened to us.
Having positive perceptions of life doesn’t mean that we are in denial of the bad. We already established that what had happened was “bad”. So we are not in denial. We are simply taking control of how we deal with the situation and making room for recovery.
It is doable to make this switch from positive to negative, by modifying our framework. But in order to do that, we have to first become aware of our current framework and assess the perceptions generated by it. We can intercept the process of generating the negative perceptions as it is happening and modify it so that it generates something more positive.
When Ali got laughed at, he saw it as a problem. When Ahmed got laughed at, he saw it as a challenge. It might seem like a simple change in words, but it’s not the words that do the magic – it’s the meaning behind those words.
The word “problem” carries with it the connotation of being burdensome and annoying. The word “challenge” carries with it the connotation that it is something exciting to try out. Ahmed modified his tendency to see the negative event negatively, and he found a way to spin it into something that would motivate him further and not drag him down.
If we are able to make this switch a regular practice, it would become easier and easier the next time around. Pretty soon, it becomes a habit. Before we know it, it becomes second nature to us. We have modified our framework from generating bad vibes into generating good vibes, ones that will help us face obstacles in life.
But be warned: the switch is not easy because it requires effort and it can be mentally exhausting, especially in the beginning when we are not used to it. We are essentially turning off the autopilot in our brain. But that is essentially the definition of taking control of our lives. If we want control, then we can’t allow ourselves to become slaves to our automatic reactions.
It’s about time that we switch to manual.