We’ve all heard of looking at life through rose-colored glasses. But few of us actually do it. Quite the opposite. Most of us view our lives through what might be called “thundercloud glasses,” a perspective darkened by years of envy, self-pity, negativity, and pessimism. Seen through these grimy lenses, our circumstances often seem far more dire and depressing than they really are—and we feel a lot more stress, worry, and mental agony than we have to.
Thomas L. Strawser, author of Spiritual Engineering (Tate Publishing & Enterprises, 2014), says misery, unlike pain, is always self-inflicted and comes from voluntarily donning these dismal frames day after day. The good news is that if we can put them on, we can also take them off. And the difference in what we see can be amazing.
“Bad things are going to happen in life, and often, we don’t have the power to change or influence them,” says Strawser. “But we always have the power to influence our reactions to these events. For example, is losing your job a disaster, or is it the gateway to a great new career? The answer depends on how you choose to think about it. Small mental shifts can make a huge difference in our happiness and well being. They can literally transform us.”
Here, Strawser shares 10 truths that can help you make positive mental shifts—and begin to reengineer your life.
• Life gives us pain but misery is optional—and self-inflicted. Pain is grief, sadness, and mourning. Misery is fear, anxiety, anger, resentment, remorse, envy, jealousy, self-pity, pride, and guilt. By shifting how you interpret people and events and changing what you focus on, you can limit the crippling effects of misery.
“Let’s say you’re jealous of your sibling, who lives in a luxurious home, takes lavish vacations, and seems to have limitless cash,” explains Strawser. “In comparison you are convinced your own life is lacking. Every time you walk through the door of your modest home and grocery shop within your monthly budget, you feel, well, miserable. But what you’re doing is choosing to focus your attention on what you don’t have. If you refocus on what you do have—good health, food on your table, a family who loves you—you’d feel grateful, not miserable.”
• Stress is the perception that we do not have the resources to meet impending challenges. Many of our preconceived ideas about stressful situations just aren’t true. When you question your assumptions, you’ll almost always realize that there is a solution (or several!) available. When you feel stressed, pause and ask yourself:
~ Am I crowding too much into too little time? What absolutely has to be done immediately?
~ How important is it really? Am I blowing it out of proportion?
~ Is it really my problem? Did I cause it? How does it affect me?
~ What is the true probability that 1) it will happen and 2) it will occur in the worst way I fear? Is fear overwhelming and distorting my evaluation?
~ Can I take an action on it today?
• At any moment, life can throw a mud ball at me. It’s your choice whether to have a bad five minutes or a bad day. Bad things happen—to all of us. What you do with it determines your quality of life. Do you stay in the problem or move on? How long do you allow an unfortunate event to upset you? Remember, there is no law or ethical code that requires you stay mired in the misery of the moment—doing so is entirely your choice.
“Suppose a reckless driver cuts you off on your commute, causing you to swerve off the road,” Strawser says. “Do you replay the incident on an endless mental loop, getting angrier and angrier throughout the day, or do you feel gratitude that you and your car are unharmed? You either stay in the problem—or look for a solution. The choice is yours.”
• If I allow people to push my buttons, it is my choice. No, you can’t magically prevent others from being petty, annoying, and rude. But you can recognize that their actions say a lot about their values and attitudes and very little about your own worth. With this knowledge in mind, you can choose to react with patience, tolerance, and tact without turning into a doormat—or sinking to the other person’s level. Don’t be a puppet! You do not have to give control of your feelings to someone who is being insensitive or nasty.
• If I am “up to my butt in alligators,” I raised every one of them. We often create our own problems or allow preexisting ones to grow. These “alligators” aren’t much of a nuisance when they are small, but once they reach a certain size, they become impossible to ignore—and they’re much more difficult to eradicate. (Think about credit card debt—those first few charges don’t seem like a big deal, but before you know it, the amount you owe causes you constant anxiety.)
“A lot of times we let something go when we know in our heart of hearts we really should take care of it now,” says Strawser. “The mental shift here is realizing the pain of dealing with it now is far less than the pain of dealing with accumulated giants later on.”
• Take a long distance view of problems. Will you remember today’s crisis one year later? If it is that easily forgotten, how important is it? Before you convince yourself that the presentation you bombed will cost you your job or that the fight you’re having with your spouse will lead to divorce, pause a moment and try to remember what was causing you contention last month, six months ago, and a year ago. Can you even recall the problems themselves, much less the details?
“Making things a ‘big deal’ gives them power over you because they consume your thoughts and influence your decisions, keeping you from productive action,” Strawser notes. “Immediate concerns usually fade; they are often not the big deals you believe them to be at the time they occur. Pause and ask your inner spirit to help you shift your thinking to decrease the size of ‘big deals.’”
• Defeat and disappointment offer the best opportunities to view my real character. When you’re smarting from a letdown or failure, the last thing you want to do is take a good, hard look at how your own beliefs and habits may have led to the current situation. (It seems much easier to fume about the shortcomings of others or the unfairness of the Universe.) But introspection can give you the self-knowledge you need to keep your problems from reoccurring.
“Ask yourself: Do I blame other people or can I honestly evaluate and accept my contribution to the situation?” Strawser suggests. “Do I magnify and distort the impact of unwanted circumstances on my life or can I step back and fairly evaluate the consequences? Do I become sucked into the quicksand of self-pity, recrimination, and despondency? Recognizing these flaws in your outlook is the first step toward healing them—so in a way, hardships are gifts.”
• When I am in pain, tears can be a lubricant for the soul. You can—and should—use problems and difficulties as catalysts for personal growth. But don’t make the mistake of believing that a stiff upper lip is necessary. It’s important to process and experience your feelings. In fact, says Strawser, that’s often the only way to release their hold on your mind and spirit. There’s absolutely no shame—and quite a bit of benefit—in crying it out.
• Anger and resentment give control of my emotions to someone I feel has wronged me. When someone has wronged you, it often feels good to dwell on your anger, doesn’t it? At the very least you feel entitled to your bitterness and resentment. But what you’re actually doing is putting your happiness in that person’s hands. You won’t be fully content until the individual who has wronged you apologizes or perhaps gets his or her comeuppance. Meanwhile, the other person probably isn’t sparing a thought about you.
“Doesn’t seem like a fair exchange, does it?” asks Strawser. “Take control of your feelings; accept that your true value does not come from other people, forgive their shortcomings, and free yourself to enjoy the day.”
• Never make a long-term decision based on short-term misery. It is impossible to make beneficial decisions when you’re overwhelmed by envy, fear, anger, self-pity, or other misery symptoms. When faced with a big decision, pause, ask your inner spirit for help, talk to a friend, and sleep on it. The pain of the moment often dissipates by tomorrow (or at the very least, the light of day puts it into perspective) and leads to better choices.
Like strengthening the muscles through exercise, learning to make these mental shifts might take some time, says Strawser. It may also require tapping into your spiritual side (which Strawser says anyone can do, even those who aren’t “believers” in the traditional sense). To start, though, he suggests you strive to simply become aware of when your thoughts are creating, magnifying, or exacerbating your problems and stress.
“Once you have developed this self-awareness, you’ll be in a position to begin challenging your preconceived ideas and changing where you choose to place your focus,” he explains. “This in turn will change how you respond to events, make decisions, and take action. Shifting your thinking is the gateway to a richer, more joyful way of life.”
Thomas J. Strawser is the author of Spiritual Engineering. He is an international engineer with a master’s degree in psychology. Divorce, alcoholism, and numerous losses in his life led him to seek practical solutions to his despair. Combining his spirituality, knowledge of psychology, and engineering know-how, Strawser discovered the process he calls Spiritual Engineering, which he shares with thousands in seminars around the world. To learn more, visit www.spiritual-engineering.com.