Taken from podcast: Align Your Mind Episode 3
Today we are talking about the power of neutrality when it comes to our circumstances. Now, this one is going to stretch your brain a little bit, but stay with me and keep an open mind. All circumstances are neutral until we have a thought about them. Everything that happens in our lives is neutral until we have a thought about it. The only reason we think something has gone wrong is that we have the thought that something has gone wrong. If we didn’t have that thought, it would just “be”
Sometimes we think it is our circumstances that are causing us to feel bad, but this concept will help you see even more clearly that things that happen in the world or in your life that are out of your control, are inherently neutral. Are you currently unemployed? That’s a neutral fact. That’s not good or bad until you decide that it is good or bad by having a thought about it.
Or maybe you think you’re upset or lonely because you’re single. You being single is a neutral fact. It is your thoughts about being single, it's what you’re making this neutral fact mean that is making you feel a certain way about it.
Now, why is it useful to notice that all facts are neutral? Because then you get to decide what you want to think about these neutral facts. Isn’t that amazing? We have so much agency when we think this way!
If you weren’t chosen for a job or an audition or a professional opportunity, that is neutral. They just didn’t choose you. That’s not good or bad. That doesn’t mean anything. It just is. But it is really good to get clear on what your brain is making it mean.
Does your brain make it mean you’re not good enough for that job? That you didn’t work hard enough? That you are never going to make it in the industry? Or maybe it’s making it mean that you should give up. When you gain this awareness, you get to separate your response from the neutral circumstance. We separate the stories we tell ourselves from the facts of the situation.
If your goal is to get a job in that same industry that didn’t choose you, then you can question your thinking. Is it going to serve you to think that you’re not good enough or not working hard enough? Is that going to make you feel motivated in a positive way to drive your actions? If not, you can do a couple of things, you can choose to believe and keep the thought, or you can choose to not believe your thoughts.
This is a great exercise when setting goals. When you set a big goal for yourself, one that you don’t know if it is even possible to achieve yet, a LOT of self-doubting thoughts usually come up in the process. Once again our brain is scared. It wants us to stay in the cave where it is safe.
When you set a goal, that goal is neutral. UNTIL you have a thought about it. I recommend writing all the thoughts that come up when you think you have terrible or impossible circumstances. Then, choose deliberately whether or not you want to believe each thought. I write down “I choose not to believe: insert thought here.” I make that agreement with myself. I don’t want to believe that, so when my brain throws it my way, I know it’s just an error in the system. I don’t give it any power or pay it any mind. This, of course, takes practice, but what an amazing tool to see that so much of the time, we make our circumstances mean far worse things than what they are when we look at them in a neutral way.
Now, of course, there are terrible things that happen in the world, that we truly want to view as terrible, but once again just for the sake of this concept, you have to think that the circumstance is terrible for it to be terrible. And you can choose to feel negative emotions about that thing. If someone you’re close to passes away, most people would choose to be sad and feel grief. I’m in no way saying that you ever need to think differently or change the way you’re thinking now. But, awareness is the key to taking responsibility for how we think and feel.
This is my favorite part of this concept, I get to take responsibility for how I think and feel. This means we don’t have to believe all of our thoughts. We can decide on purpose how we’re going to think and feel about things. Maybe you’re upset because the person you live with should have done the dishes. The fact that they didn’t is neutral. You can decide to think whatever you want about it. Maybe you got mad because you asked them to do the dishes and they won’t listen to you and you may even think that they are causing you to get mad. But, they’re not. You are upset because of your thought that they should have done the dishes, maybe you even make it mean they don’t respect you. But since we can’t control other people’s actions, we get to take responsibility for what we make their actions (or inactions) mean. Literally, we create the ability to respond.
Here’s the thing. You may think that it would be productive to be mad at the person that didn’t do the dishes. But do they feel that anger? Nope! You do. When you’re upset “at” someone, they’re not the one that feels it, you do. This is a small distinction, but think about how you operate when you’re upset, is that the way you want to show up in the relationship you have with that person? The best part about this is that nobody can “make you mad” once you take responsibility for your thoughts and feelings. Could you choose to be upset? Absolutely! I’m not saying to accept everything and every behavior. But just knowing you have a choice in the matter is so powerful.
Let’s make it really clear what I mean by neutral. “My friend was rude to me” is a thought, because “rude” is an opinion. “My friend said these words to me” is a neutral circumstance. What you make those words mean is the most important thing to reflect on, not the words or the other person. If someone texts you and you’re freaking out about what they said. Know that the true neutral circumstance is that they’re letters on a screen. Any meaning we give to the letters on the screen is just thoughts about that neutral circumstance.
Neutral circumstances don’t have descriptive words or words that someone could disagree with. Neutral circumstances can be proven. The stories we tell ourselves are often just thoughts, not facts. Some people tell themselves that things are just harder for them than other people. And they think that’s just a fact. But it’s not, it’s just a thought. It can’t be proven, it’s an opinion.
When we reflect on the way we talk about our lives, we can see that there are many things we are stating as facts, that are actually just opinions. A good example of this is talking about things we “have” to do. Technically you are your own person and you don’t “have” to do anything. Of course, there will be consequences if you don’t take on certain responsibilities, but you don’t “have” to. This may sound like a pointless difference, but taking on the responsibility that everything we do in our life is OUR choice, is so empowering.
The way I use this is usually when I’m stuck in a thought or feeling that is indulgent or unnecessary, such as overwhelm, stress, or worry. I call these unnecessary because they’re not really productive feelings. Feeling through pain or sadness and processing those can be productive, but indulging in worry or overwhelm usually just leads to more worry or overwhelm.
Let’s say that I have 10 things on my list to do in a day. My brain goes to a place of worry: can I get this all done? What if people don’t like my blog post? Oh my gosh, this is going to be a really long weekend… It's going to be so hard to get this all done...
If I’m coming from that place, thinking it’s going to be really hard to do all those things or that I won’t have time to get them done, I create even more resistance for myself. I’m really hurting myself in the long run because I don’t do my best work when I’m overwhelmed and worried.
This is a great time to pick out the circumstance. In this case, the circumstance would be the 10 things on my list. Someone else could have those same ten things to do and think it’s nothing, that it’s not a big deal! Choosing to believe you’re not going to get it all done is the same functionally as choosing that you have the perfect amount of time to get it all done. Those two thoughts just create really different feelings. And we’re used to thinking negative thoughts first.
I want to bring this up because based on our habit of thinking we interpret circumstances as negative or positive. It reminds me of the SNL sketch Debbie Downer. If you haven’t seen it please go on youtube immediately and watch it. No matter what circumstance she’s in she always brings down the mood. Her habit is to think negative thoughts. This is usually our first reaction as humans too, once again because our brain is trying to protect us from bears and being left out from our tribe. There is nothing wrong if you think negative thoughts first, but if you can, give equal air time to the positive.
Maybe you can even think, how is this circumstance perfect right now? Thinking it is perfect is the same as thinking it is imperfect. Those thoughts will just create different results.
For me, I love thinking that my life happened for me. The story of my childhood, upbringing, and the way I used to act, which was super shy, I used to resent that I acted that way. I was actually upset at my younger self for never talking or participating even when I know I wanted to. But I could also look at it as a gift. I got to grow and change so drastically, and do the work to become comfortable with myself. And of course now as a coach, I look at every perceived negative circumstance as an opportunity to do thought work. I get to learn even more about the way I’m thinking. I get to uncover beliefs I didn’t know I had and I get one step closer to becoming the person I want to be.
Another great question to ask is: How could someone else think about this?
Now, I want to be clear, the goal isn’t to be happy about everything, but to be aware of how you’re thinking. Expecting to feel only positive emotions is a losing game. Because positive and negative are what we associate them with but emotions are emotions, and as humans, we feel them all. This awareness can help you expand your perspective. This can shine a light on something that’s kept you stuck in a rut or may uncover a limiting belief you don’t actually want to believe.
The ability to take responsibility for how we feel is not to shame ourselves for feeling negative emotions. It is the knowledge that we’re human, and right now we may feel sadness, grief, pain, but we can choose to feel those too. I even encourage it. As a human I want to feel all the feels, experience everything, but also know that I’m choosing to do that.
Once we choose to think and feel the way we want to about ANY circumstance, we gain power over our lives in any situation. I recently read Viktor Frankl’s book A Man’s Search for Meaning. Victor Frankl was in a concentration camp in world war II for three years.
In his book he says, “ We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms -- to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” I get chills when I read this. I highly recommend reading his book.
I’m going to share one more quote with you. He says, “When we are no longer able to change the situation -- just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer -- we are challenged to change ourselves.”
He also says that we don’t need suffering in order to find meaning in our lives. We get to choose what we give meaning to. For many people this year has been extremely difficult. But no circumstances, no year on the calendar can take away our human freedom which is to choose how to think about it, to choose our attitude, to choose our way forward.