5.4 Let it Go
A few weeks ago, I mentioned being haunted by a ghost. No, it hasn't returned, but in that story I briefly talked about an incident where I almost got into a fight with a parking lot attendant. To review, I was trying to find one of those restaurants located in a back alley with no signage. Frustrated, I cut through a parking lot where the attendant was backing into a tight spot. I couldn't get around him, started to get angry and his reaction was to yell back and give me not one but two middle fingers. Walking away, I thought, This is not me, what is going on? What happened in that moment is something I think happens to everyone. Frustrations, whether deep-seeded or near the surface, get triggered by something superfluous. Anger sparked by an arbitrary act. For me, it felt like if I figured out one thing, that one thing - whatever it was - that maybe it would help make room in my life for more than just guilt, shame, frustration and regret. And hey, maybe even open up a bit of space for some goddamn joy or happiness. I'm not saying I don't have moments of joy or happiness, just that they are more brief conceptual frameworks instead of genuine feelings.
So, my answer to this was to seek help through neuroscience. Yes, neuroscience. Not just explore the feelings, or lack thereof, but understand what is actually going on in my brain. What are the thought patterns that have been conditioned over many years? And, most importantly, can they be changed?
The answer: yes. But it's really freakin' difficult.
I'll give you an example. After finishing up a project and sending it out to a client, I'll generally worry about the reaction up until the moment that I get the okay. They don't get back to me the rest of the day, I'll start believing something is very wrong. They don't get back to me the next day, I figure the end is nigh. When they finally get back to me with a positive response, there is relief and happiness. However, according to neuroscience, those two days of expecting the worst is training my brain to react negatively to situations in general. Once you establish a negative thought pattern to a given situation, every time you have a similar experience, it is easier and easier to fall downwards into that same place. In the above example, there was one positive affirmation (the positive news from the client) and probably a couple hundred negative ones (almost every thought between sending the work out to the actual response).
You could say this is out of balance.
Becoming more aware of how I talk to myself has been pretty eye-opening. According to me, some of my favorite views are that I'm stupid, dumb, unprofessional, hopeless, unattractive and a loser, to name but a few. I wouldn't talk to anyone else in this way, so why am I doing this to myself? If I want others to have a degree of respect for me, how can I expect this if I don’t respect myself? In order to change this pattern of thinking, the first thing I'm doing is trying to counter this negative perception of myself. Yes, a bit Oprah-ish, but whatever. I'm just trying to get better here. I'll do anything at this point.
Now there are full blown arguments going on in my head. The other day, I was meeting a friend, parked my car and started heading to the coffee shop. Went to check my phone, which I forgot in the car and immediately called myself stupid for forgetting it. Wait, why am I stupid for forgetting my phone? Maybe I just have a lot on my mind? Maybe I'm just excited to see my friend? Maybe I'm trying to subconsciously tell myself that I should not be on my phone so much? That I should be more present and focus on the flesh and blood people around me?
This kind of argument would repeat many times, because apparently I don't have a very high opinion of myself. But like I said, I'll do anything.
Returning to the scene with the parking lot attendant, and although I might be overreaching a bit, I'd say there were many things going on. The anger and frustration that bubbled up at that poor unexpecting man who was just doing his job potentially triggered a series of negative thoughts -
I am tired. Tired with myself and the way I conduct my behaviour. Frustrated with my relationships, friends lost and my inability to sustain any form of solid romantic partnership. It's easy to point fingers at everyone, which I do a lot, but also, I am very good at taking on the weight of all my failings. Failings so great that I wonder why I go on. I am a loser who gets stepped on by everyone around me and I never stand up for myself. So, you sir, you who is in my way trying to park this car, I will take all these frustrations out on you because although I feel that I deserve all the negative things I think about myself, sometimes, every once in a while, a person has to unload because they are unable to deal with their issues. And I'm sorry, but you're the guy that happened to be here and I just can't take it anymore.
-Which he obviously didn't deserve. Time to change this.
And another lesson came. Sure, you could actively attempt to change your brain and your thought patterns. At the same time, can the brain actually change itself over time? Okay, so I’ve gone on and on about my past relationships and my many failings in them. Enough of that, right? I attend a writing group and again I tried to tackle my relationships in an attempt to understand where I went wrong. As I was reading the story, I just didn’t care anymore. For me, writing has become explicitly intertwined with my life, even if I’m not directly talking about it. In order to be invested, I have to feel something about it. When I say, I just didn’t care, it wasn’t that it held no meaning, more that I didn’t feel anything towards it. The pain was gone, the desire to understand was gone. I was indifferent to the notion of exploring this issue. It worked itself out. The patterns of pain and regret and frustration evened out. This sounds lame, but I even started appreciating what happened in these relationships, recalled the positive aspects of them and how the people involved, including myself, grew because of it.
You can try to force your brain to let it go. Maybe sometimes the brain needs to process experiences on its own in order to let it go. Either way, the goal is the same: Let. It. Go.