Questioning Your Perception

What do you see when you look at a pen? When I look at a pen, I see a tool for writing, but one of my 2nd grade students may look at the same pen and see a drumstick. Much to my dismay, my dog Sandy often sees a fun chew toy when she looks at the same pen. Even though we are all viewing the same object, our different perceptions of the object influence what unfolds.

This is a truth I am leaning into more and more. Our perception truly does shape our reality and this truth can benefit us greatly when it comes to life’s inevitable curveballs. Often times our perception of challenging situations and difficult emotions exacerbates our suffering. When one faces daily suffering, such as a bad review at work, missing a deadline or forgetting a friend’s birthday, it’s easy to judge oneself and perceive the event as evidence of one’s shortcomings or ineptitude. While it is true that we all have shortcomings as individuals, by focusing on our shortcomings and failings as an individual when we slip up, we often enhance our suffering by waking up lots of difficult emotions, like shame, anger and sadness.

One way to shift our perception of our mistakes and shortcomings, is to ask ourselves “what can I learn from this?”. By transforming errors into learning opportunities, we can not only grow, but shift ourselves away from more difficult emotions and minimize our own suffering. Additionally, instead of berating ourselves for forgetting plans you made with a friend, you may be able to think of a strategy, such as setting a reminder on your phone, to help you next time. You lose the ability to problem solve and think creatively when you are stuck in negative thoughts or glued to one perspective.

Mindfulness is a way to bring awareness to your habitual reactions and perceptions of events in your life. As you practice being aware of your thoughts, you can start to notice when you immediately perceive a situation as evidence of your failings. Then, you can step back and change the trajectory of your thoughts. So next time you notice yourself spiraling downwards, pause and take a moment to alter your perception. Ask yourself, “what can I learn from this situation?” and see what unfolds.

Recognizing Your Warning Lights

The holiday season can be tough. There are numerous partied to attend, lots of gifts to buy, holiday cards to write, extended time with family and friends and the guilt that often comes with not being able to do everything.  I often find that I turn to unhelpful coping mechanisms, like compulsively planning or eating when I’m not hungry, more during the holidays. Although these coping mechanisms aren’t “bad”, when I use them too frequently, I find myself moving further away from my values of inner peace, flexibility and self-care.

One way I work on keeping my values at the forefront is to use mindfulness. When I notice myself compulsively planning or eating when I’m not hungry I treat those behaviors as a warning sign. Instead of beating myself up for being too controlling and rigid or for eating when I’m not hungry, I try to shift my focus. If I’m able to see those behaviors as a warning light and an opportunity to check in with what I’m feeling, I have more compassion for my unhelpful behaviors and have a new opportunity to give myself what I really need.

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For example, when I notice I’m having circular planning thoughts, I first notice these thoughts and recognize them as unhelpful (they normally make me anxious and make it more difficult to focus on what I’m presently doing). I even visualize a warning light flashing when I notice the behavior. The visualization helps me stop my compulsive and mindless behaviors.

Then, I take a deep breath before asking myself, “what emotion or difficult situation am I avoiding by focusing my mental energy on planning?”

This answer isn’t always obvious, but with some practice and awareness I can normally identify a difficult emotion like anxiety, sadness, loneliness or fear.

Once I acknowledge the difficult emotion, I use self-talk to acknowledge and validate the emotion. Frequently I say, “wow, Kate, feeling anxious is really uncomfortable. I know this is a difficult moment. What do you need to be with your anxiety right now?”

What I need in the moment varies wildly. Sometimes I need a few minutes to be by myself and meditate. Sometimes I need to reach out and connect with a friend or loved one. Other times I need to take an action that I’ve been putting off, like saying no to a party I don’t really want to attend. It’s not always possible to give myself what I am needing in the moment (I can’t always drop what I’m doing to meditate or a friend may not be available to talk), but often identifying the true feeling and need is enough to help me proceed more mindfully and, at least momentarily, engage in more helpful behaviors.

I’d love to hear from you! What are your warning lights? What do you think about these steps? Have they been helpful for you?