I had a bad dream last night. One of the reasons that I am so invested in looking after other people’s mindsets is that I was, once, pretty beset by anxiety dreams. One returned last night. I now know what to do; how to deal with the subsequent feelings and thoughts I experience. Within a few moments, it was gone, dwindling like a match to its charred end.
The imagery is crucial here. Thoughts are very much like matches. If they are used in certain ways, they can start fires. Incredible, powerful, life-changing fires. Every great idea in the world started as a thought. These thoughts can propel you to achieve almost anything; feats of endurance, strength, ingenuity, passion, love and peace, all owe their existence to thought.
The flip side is the same as the match. A single match can be deadly. It can light a fire that spreads, engulfing almost everything in its way. A bad thought infects others, twisting your mindset into negativity and if unchecked, leads you down a desperate and destructive path.
Life’s challenge is about choosing which thoughts (or matches) to use as a catalyst and which to let burn out. Notice the idea of choice here though. You are in control of these things. That’s probably something to bear in mind.
“A person with great dreams can achieve great things.” Dr Bob Rotella
Notice also that my words are interchangeable. I started talking about ‘dreams’ and now it’s ‘thoughts’. That’s on purpose. They are exactly the same thing, originating from the same source: your mind. And yet, curiously, we dismiss bad dreams with more ease. We wake, perhaps startled, our heart racing, our brow moist, and try to catch a moment. In a few seconds, we realise that it wasn’t real; it was ‘just a dream’, and will often soothe ourselves back to safety. Later that day you may even struggle to remember what the bad dream was about. We are so good at releasing them.
But a thought? We can carry around bad thoughts for days, weeks, months, even years! A bad thought stays with us, we burden ourselves with it, ruminating on it, often deliberately, and it can be returned to and enhanced at will.
We convince ourselves that our thoughts are not in our control, that they are something we are given and have to deal with, despite the undeniable truth that we are responsible for them. We choose to think about certain things. We are not some passenger exposed to whatever the mind thinks, we are the one thinking it. We are driving and where we want to go is down to us.
“People, by and large, become what they think about themselves.” William James
It seems so ridiculously simple, almost fatuous: if you want to change how you feel, you must change your thinking; change what you think about and your feelings will follow. Because feelings only come from thoughts.
Let me try and explain what I mean. Imagine being in a queue for lunch. You know that lasagne is being served and it’s your favourite. It’s a very good dish and always delicious. When you reach the front of the queue, all of the lasagne is gone and you are handed a tuna salad. You take your seat crestfallen, the thought of being without has you feeling very disappointed. It is really not fair that you’ve missed out. You then think back to other times this has happened in your life; it seems to happen to you a lot and you fall further into your mood: disappointment moves to sadness and a feeling of victimisation. Your physiology is representing these feelings: your head is down, your shoulders are slouched, and your facial expression is not welcoming. Someone approaches the table to sit next to you and sees how despondent you look. Not wanting to get involved, they move elsewhere and sit down next to someone else. You see this happen out of the corner of your eye and it generates a further thought of rejection and loneliness. A greater sense of melancholy is achieved. One thought has spread like a fire and caused a fair amount of damage.
Now, imagine being in the same queue and the same thing happens. But you’re able to quickly extinguish that initial thought of disappointment and you sit and eat your salad, comfortable in the reflection that a bit of protein, fibre and plant-based goodness will be better for you today. Your physiology mirrors this and when someone approaches your table, they are happy to sit down next to someone that looks content and relaxed. They strike up a conversation with you and reveal that they aren’t able to go to the football match tonight and offer you the tickets they have. You take them up on their offer and visit the stadium with your son and have a wonderful evening.
It sounds like ‘sliding doors’, like a happenstance due to serendipity or chance. But it’s not. It’s down to mindset, and in particular, your ability to let thoughts go.
We cannot control what life hands us. But we can control how we respond. Most importantly, we can control the way we think about things. And in a way, as the ‘lasagne’ example shows, that affects how people behave towards us. We can see bad, unhelpful thoughts arriving. And, like the lit match, we can choose what we do with it. In this case, in the first instance, the thought of ‘no lasagne’ leads to a fire spreading and causing greater issue. But in the second, the match is extinguished and the danger is prevented.
“Winners and losers are self determined. But only the winners are willing to admit to it.” John Wooden, 9-time National Basketball Champion at UCLA
‘This is all very well and good,’ I can hear you thinking, ‘but in the busyness of our daily routines, it can be very difficult to step back and see things this rationally.’ Well, yes, it is. But it’s not impossible. And the only way we get better at something is to practice and the first thing to do in order to start practising is to spot it when it happens. Most of my work with people is about getting them to think about their thinking. Once you have that, a lot of the other stuff follows.
The next time it happens, see if you can intercept a bad thought. That’s the first step to owning a better, stronger mind. Intercept it and let it burn out. Metaphorically, even literally if you are using your good deep breaths, gently blow it out. Over time, you’ll get better and better at seeing them coming: better and better at letting them dwindle to their charred end. And in time, everything will just be better.
(The quotes in this piece are all from Dr. Bob Rotella’s book ‘Golf Is Not A Game Of Perfect’. Dr. Rotella is the best-known golf psychologist in the world. Since 1984, golfers coached by Doc have won more than 300 Tournaments and 74 Majors! And one of the first thing he does with them all is what I’ve done with you here: he gets them to think about their thinking.)