Rewrite the script
Have you ever listened to your personal script? The one that dictates how every situation will play out because that’s what always happens? The one that spills out in words and makes sure that the situation plays out the way it’s supposed to? The one you’re so very, very tired of because it just makes you … more tired?
Parenting a 10-year-old and a teenager involves many such scenes, each one usually overplayed as much as (but with very different results from) Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.” Being in a long-standing relationship – ditto. Working at the same job for years – yup, that too.
How can the script be rewritten and the continuous playback stopped? In “Hitting the pause button,” I wrote about hitting pause on internal dialogues. In this case, I’m talking about doing something similar when in conversation with others.
In Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl writes, “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” He doesn’t say that we will make the right choice – whatever that is – but he does promise us the power to at least make a choice, something our script often denies us.
And what does that choice come down to? In May Cause Miracles, Gabrielle Bernstein writes that ultimately, the choice of how to respond comes down to two very basic emotions: fear (I tend to think of it as anger) and love. You cannot choose how another person will treat you or speak to you, you cannot choose what the world will hand you to deal with, but with a little mindfulness, you can choose how you will react.
The key is to actually stop yourself from talking, think about how you could react with anger and how you could react with love, then make a conscious decision – you can still choose anger, but at least you chose it – the anger didn’t control you.
Here’s how the rewritten scene works: You come home exhausted only to find that your spouse is calmly reading the news, not making you dinner, and the kids have once again disappeared before unloading their backpacks and lunchboxes, which is what they are supposed to do without being reminded.
Stop! Now listen to the track that starts to play in your head: “Once, just once I would love to come home and find that my work is done for the day. Why do I have to be the one to empty the dishrack, wash the dishes that didn’t make it into the dishrack to begin with, make dinner, monitor homework, blah blah blah.”
When you’re in that frame of mind, what do you tend to say? It could be something unpleasant (as in, you just speak exactly what you’re thinking) or, if you have supreme self-control, it might be a more pleasant line but worded or delivered in a way that leaves no doubt as to how grumpy you feel (“Did you at least manage to check the mail today?”) And then what happens? Nothing good, nothing loving, nothing positive, nothing supportive.
But what would happen if you stopped yourself before blurting anything out, took a deep breath in and out, and really considered your options?
You could decide that you’re steamed enough to go with the vitriol, or you could try to think of one positive thing that’s happened in the last 24 hours: “Thanks for taking the trash out last night.” Disregard the fact that your mind tacks on, “…even though you should be doing it every week!” and just enjoy the look on your spouse’s face. I would bet that you might find the trash taken out next week as well, and the week after that. A few more well-placed “thank yous” might even get you dinner one night in the not-too-distant future.
“Hey kids, thanks for feeding the cat last night without being asked to do it.” Ignore the nasty part of your mind that adds, “…for a change!” and I guarantee their jaws will drop. And suddenly, a bunch of the other chores are done without a reminder.
What’s most incredible is that with practice, this gets a lot easier and the snarky endings in your head actually disappear. With enough practice, this becomes second nature.
I hear that it’s now been disproved that it takes 21 days to develop a habit – well, whether it takes 20 days or 200, this habit of finding the space between stimulus and response and using it to make a conscious choice about that response can rewrite the tired old script and open up a whole new story line, one of personal growth and freedom. Where will your storyline go?