If you are of a certain age, you may remember tennis champion John McEnroe and his famous protests against the umpire’s decisions – ‘You cannot be serious!’ Of course, McEnroe did not challenge every decision, only those he considered to be against his best interests.
Now, even if you have never played tennis, there is something important here. When it’s in your best interests, you can challenge your own umpire! This could be at work or at home. It works like this.
We know that many things we do are habitual. Habits can serve you well; they can streamline action and conserve effort. You also know that some habits work against your best interests (you can fill in the blanks here!).
The most insidious habits are habits of thought, well-rehearsed mental pathways that lead in a downwards spiral. You know the kind of thing – you clip the kerb on the drive to work so you criticise yourself for slipshod driving. Then you go on to recall other cases where your action has been less than excellent. As the list builds in your mind, you begin to see a clear pattern of careless and slapdash behaviour. The only conclusion is that there is something wrong with you. It’s obviously deep-rooted and you’re never going to be able to fix it. And that fills you with bad feelings.
This type of thinking is not rational; neither is it helpful. It may be a pile of nonsense but we take it seriously. Because we have rehearsed these mental habits over the years, the results can develop quickly. One minute we are driving along quite happily, next minute we are feeling terrible at the bottom of the spiral.
But what happens if we recognize it for what it is – simply a stream of thinking. Then we have a choice. We can either believe that what we are thinking is the undeniable truth or we can choose not to take the thinking so seriously. The thoughts may linger briefly but without the oxygen of attention they will fade, replaced by different thoughts.
In recent months, I’ve found that sometimes I can catch the very moment I’m about to step down into the spiral. Recognising I could choose to carry on investing in my train of thought or I could use McEnroe’s famous line has enabled me to avoid unnecessary suffering. Even when I miss the first opportunity, the growing bad feelings are a sure sign that it would be in my best interests to stop taking my thinking seriously. When I do this, the downward spiral becomes more of a quick dip than a deep plunge.
As human beings, we think all of the time. Perhaps the ultimate choice you have is how you relate to your thinking minute by minute – whether you buy into it or whether you challenge the umpire. Either way, the consequences are yours.