Tuesday, 15 September 2015

How We Create Problems for Ourselves (and How to Stop)

Man Lying in the Grass

"If you think you're enlightened, go spend a week with your family." ~Ram Dass

I just returned from a four-day trip with my family. It was my own family of four (my husband and two kids), plus my mom, my two sisters, and my brother-in-law.

It was great. We get along well and have fun together.

And, it was four days with family.

It's a funny thing…although you grow up with your siblings, listening to and being influenced by your parents, you all end up so unique—different from each other and different from the adults who raised you.

Of course we're all unique. But our differences seem to be a little harder to accept or dismiss when we're talking about family. These are the people you care about most in the world, and that usually means they can get under your skin like no others.

We tend to have the most opinions about, and agendas for, the ones with whom we have the deepest emotional connection. Unconditional love and all of that good stuff aside, four days with family can be the perfect breeding ground for I-can't-believe-she-said-that and I-must-be-adopted.

A Shift in Understanding

In the past, when I'd think about the frustration and annoyance that would come up around my family, it looked very real. It looked like it was definitely about—and caused by—them.

I would have described it something like this: "Being around my family stirs stuff up. That's normal, right? I experience some frustration, but it's relatively minor. We get along great for the most part, and whatever annoyance there is tends to fade as soon as we go our separate ways."

Basically, it looked to me as if there was an actual issue with my family, but I was grateful that it was minor. I was good at seeing the bright side.

Bright side-looking isn't all bad. That was the best way I could see our "issue" for a long time and it served me. It kept me showing up and it allowed me to mostly enjoy our time together.

But on this most recent trip, I was blessed with an insight that gave me a different understanding of the exact same circumstances.

What I saw is that there is no problem with my family. There never was.

We don't have an actual issue. If you looked at us from the outside, you'd see eight people hanging out with each other. There is no problem.

The "issue" I was feeling and attributing to my family all these years was nothing more than my own thinking. It's just where my mind tends to go.

My mind likes to tell stories and get quite overactive when it comes to my family. It's been doing that for decades, actually.

When I'm around them, my mind tells predictable, old tales tinged with frustration and fear, full of why-do-they-do that, and they-don't-ever, and what-about-me. On this particular night, my mind was full of stories of how we should feel around each other, how we should be on the same page, how people should listen to me more.

And those stories have nothing to do with my family. They have to do with my own unmet expectations and my own biased mind in the moment, not with my family at all.

What a relief! The moment I saw this, the tension was gone. This may sound like a strange reaction, but I found it hilarious, actually, to see that I've spent thirty-some years in a mental dialogue about something that was never about what it looked to be about.

The mental dialogue was the source of my angst all along.

The Same May Be True for You

The same may be true for you and your family, or whatever you think your outside "issue" is, as well.

Part of why my insight had such an impact on me is that it wasn't just about me and my family. It showed up as I found myself lying in bed ruminating about what someone had said earlier that day. But the problem wasn't what they had said.

It hit me like a ton of bricks that the rumination my mind happened to be doing was the only "problem" I had ever had.

Your opinionated, personal mind is either being quiet or loud. When it's quiet, it looks like all is well in the world outside. Actually, all is well on the world inside—the peace you're feeling is your own inner peace.

And when your mind is loud, it looks like all is chaotic in the world outside. Actually, it's just a little chaotic internally, at the moment. It may have nothing to do with what it looks like it's about. Or, as they say, it's not what you think…it's what you think.

This difference may sound insignificant, but it's been really huge for me. I thought I was getting off good by putting a nice spin on our family "issues."

To see that there are far fewer issues than I think—that often the main source of frustration is the show my mind is putting on in any moment—that's freedom. When my mind gets tired or the show ends, it's done. No issues to get over, just seeing thought as thought.

You might wonder: but what if there is something that needs to change? The beauty of seeing how your mind ruminates and replays and creates problems is that when it stops doing that so much, you know if there's something to do and you do it, drama-free.

It's like if you're driving across the country with a filthy windshield. That's kind of what an I-can't-believe-she-said-that opinionated mind does—it muddies your inner windshield and taints everything you see.

So going on a road trip with globs of dirt and mud on your windshield, well, that's going to affect your judgment, right? Things won't look as clear. You'll probably miss turns because you can barely read the signs. You might mistake a town as "dirty" or "blah" because you're seeing the windshield more so than the city.

From a very busy mind that believes everything is a big issue to be solved, you're not seeing clearly.

You're might try to intervene on things that might naturally blow over; and fear, self-doubt, or resentment might have you staying quiet when there is a place to intervene. You're seeing from a dirty windshield so you're not getting an accurate view of things.

Seeing that your mind is constantly running what are essentially re-runs of this story about your family (or whatever your story happens to be about) lets you discount those stories. You naturally disconnect from them because you see the truth about them. That clears your windshield.

From that place, you handle any actual problems you might want to handle calmly and peacefully. It's a night-and-day difference. From a clear mind, you simply know what to do and you go about doing it the best you can.

When you see that a gigantic proportion of your "issues" are caused by a dirty windshield, the windshield is wiped clear and anything that needs to actually be dealt with in the real world is dealt with. It's as simple as that.

I can breathe deeper knowing that. I hope you can too.

Man lying on grass image via Shutterstock

Profile photo of Dr. Amy Johnson

About Amy Johnson

Dr. Amy Johnson is a psychologist, coach, and the author of several books, including Being Human: Essays on Thoughtmares, Bouncing Back, and Your True Nature. Please sign up here to receive free weekly insights and wisdom from Amy.

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