Three people were working on a project that turned out a complete disaster. The boss called them one by one, and as he appraised them, he criticized their work using a harsh tone.
The first one took it as a constructive feedback instead of criticism; he looked at it objectively, devoid of any emotions. He accepted some of it where he realized his mistake, and rejected the rest of it. He introspected for a day or two, gaining clarity on his areas of improvements and was his normal self at work soon. The second one was quite upset about the way his boss spoke to him. He could not express his resentment and continued to be in a sulking state for quite a long time.
The third person didn’t pay much attention to what his boss said, and didn’t give even a second thought to it the moment he was out of his boss’s cabin. The stimulus, in this scenario being the same for all, summed up as “negative feedback from the boss”. It is interesting to note that the response by every person is completely different. This story clearly explains the space that lies between a stimulus and a response. When we understand our freedom to choose any required response in any situation, we become truly effective and mindful, in our lives including the workplace.
As I narrated this story to the participants of one of my training programs, one participant ventured into the appropriateness of the third response, as it portrayed an attitude too carefree. As a trainer, I try to utilize all the objections as well as the questions to maximize the learning of the participants.
I now had to explain how deeply conditioned we are to look at life as “black” or “white”. I come across such types of questions during my coaching sessions also. “Whether this is the right thing to do or not”, is a question, I frequently face as a coach and a trainer. The kind of pressures that people unconsciously put on themselves due to their beliefs and the guilt they carry with themselves, is an area that certainly requires attention.
From our time in the womb itself, we start learning our lessons of what is right and what is wrong. As we grow up, we are deeply conditioned into fixed ideas and feelings about what we should be saying and how we should be saying it, what to do and how to do it, how to act or behave, what not to do, what is bad or evil, and this list is endless.
Thus loaded, we carry this burden of our unlimited notions of “right and wrong”, “good and bad” at all times and wherever we go. Having preconceived notions that we access in every situation, we don’t even realize how our life revolves around a set of generalizations about everything and everybody. And how we martyr ourselves, transporting the load of fixed ideas, feelings and responses from each night to the following day, is out of our conscious awareness!
If we start paying attention to the language people use, we start noticing generalizations in the form of “ought”,” should”, “can”, “can’t”, “would”, “wouldn’t”, “never” and many of such phrases. It helps us to understand that these are merely limitations imposed on us by our own thinking. It is truly liberating when an individual understands this fact. There is in fact nothing that is a universal law to be abided by, under all circumstances, and one is totally free to choose a considered response. As someone rightly said, all generalizations are lies to someone.
Let me elaborate it more by taking examples in different aspects of our lives starting with our thinking.
· Thinking – Positive thinking is certainly useful in most circumstances but negative thinking can also be utilized in some of the situations. For example, if a person is addicted to something and it is ruining his life, he can convince himself with all the negative results and consequences, making it easier for him to give up the addiction. Isn’t negative thinking beneficial to foresee so many risks in life?
· Attitude- It’s good to have an attitude of contentment but if a person has a contended attitude why would he go out of his comfort zone to put more efforts into anything. Similarly, a pessimistic attitude may drive someone to take massive action.
· Behaviour -It is believed that by hugging someone, one can increase good feelings and ease some conflicts with him/her. Some people would hug everyone too hard without noticing whether the "huggee" likes it or not.
We are taught to speak truth but some people end up hurting people deeply because they think it is always good to be honest and tell the truth.
We are often told that procrastination is not the right thing to do. If a person is on diet, and he procrastinates eating one of his favourite food item, wouldn’t that be good for him? If criminals start procrastinating their crimes, wouldn’t it be good for the society?
We are also told that being forgetful might be an issue. As quoted by Sholem Asch, “Not the power to remember, but it’s very opposite, the power to forget, is a necessary condition for our existence.” There are things that have to be forgotten if you want to go on living happily, aren’t there?
· Emotions – Every emotion has some purpose but we are taught to think negatively about negative emotions like frustration, disappointment etc. If a person sets a goal for himself, and he has not been able to accomplish that goal, he ends up being frustrated. If he still feels okay, why would he even think of changing his strategy or approach? So it is precisely the feeling of frustration that may force him to take different actions.
· Fears – We are taught that fears limit us. However, if fear of public speaking makes a person work harder and prepare really well, won’t he be better equipped to face the situation. If your child is playing with a risky object or crossing a busy road carelessly, you would certainly install a fear just to ensure his safety so that he is more careful.
· Communication – It is believed that you need to choose assertive communication over submissive and aggressive communication. In certain situations especially with your loved ones, sometimes you choose to be submissive to make them feel good. And in some situations, by being aggressive, you are able to put your point across well and influence someone to change his inappropriate behavior.
Nothing is completely wrong or right, there can be multiple perspectives about everything and every situation. Can we look at our thoughts, words and actions as a tool that needs to be used intelligently and consciously? Every behaviour can be useful in a particular context. You can choose to see positivity in negativity by focusing on learnings and releasing the emotions.
A new paradigm - “empowering or limiting”
Instead of seeing everything from a “good or bad” or “right or wrong” frame, I would suggest you to adopt a new frame ie. “empowering or limiting”. If a behavior empowers you in a specific situation, feel free to choose it rather than being a prison of your past conditioning.
A generalization may not be the truth
We must be able to discriminate between a generalization and a truth. However when we believe in something, we think it is a fact, when others believe in something, it may be a point of view. Do we ever look at our belief as a generalization?
Start building“letting go” muscles
Letting go means letting go of not only distressing and unpleasant things but also every kind of fixed ideas and beliefs. You made all these associations and as long as you cling to them, it’s impossible for you to become one with your true nature which is open, playful and ready to grow by exploring.
When you are caught up by fixed ideas, you cannot freely use your mind. By being liberated from your fixed ideas, you will see that many of the thoughts and perspectives that you considered are ridiculous.
Someone said, “If your mind is broad, it can embrace the whole world. If it is narrow, even a needle cannot enter.” You have to keep letting go of your stubbornness and rigidness and be a role model for others too. As Ridley Scott quoted, “Life isn't black and white. It's a million gray areas.”
Finding the right balance is the key
So when it comes to choosing an attitude of contentment and discontent. What is important is to find the right balance between the two - the state in which you have enough satisfaction to enjoy who you've become, where you are and what your life is like, but still feel enough dissatisfaction to work for more, to have a constant drive to grow and contribute!
Be aware when you are teaching generalizations or truths
A good teacher/trainer/coach/parent is aware of the differentiation when teaching generalizations and when teaching some universal principles or truths. In case of presenting generalizations, he/she explicitly uses phrases like “I think that” or “I believe that” to avoid being interpreted as “truth”. We all need to do this in instructing our children, youngsters and subordinates, so that they are able to move towards a more objective and clear outlook.
I would like to conclude with these lines that I wrote sometime back.
The worst prison is the prison of our conditioning.
The toughest wall to conquer is the wall of our fixed ideas.
The inner demons are the most difficult to defeat!