This is one of my favorite exercises to help gain perspective and reset my thinking. It’s inspired in large part by Richard Carlson’s amazing Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, as well as numerous similar questions I’ve received from my sponsor over the years and decades we’ve been working together. Simply, the exercise is to get in the habit of asking myself “How do I know that?”
In my self-talk, like many of us, I make assertions about the way the world is. I’ve mostly gotten out of the habit of making negative assertions about myself, but it’s still really easy to make negative assertions about other people, or about their feelings about me. When I realize that I’m doing this, I need to ask myself “How do I know that?” and then really dig in to the answer. Once I’ve figured out why I think I know it, then I need to search for what else might explain what I’m seeing.
For example, if I send someone a text and they don’t respond within whatever timeframe I think is appropriate, it’s easy for me to fall into believing that they must be mad at me. If I continue down this path, I can spend way longer than I want to admit scouring my behavior for whatever it is that I did to piss them off. Once I think I’ve found something, it’s also easy to fall into some version of “How dare they be mad about that!” I can then work myself up into being angry at them for being angry at me about the thing that I decided they must be angry at me about. Or, I can work myself into some version of “I always get into relationships with people who ignore me.”
But, this was all in my head. Really, I have no idea why they didn’t respond “quickly enough”. Maybe they’re just busy at work. Maybe they just got some really bad family news that they have to deal with. Maybe they typed out their response and then got another text that distracted them so they never hit send. Maybe they’re practicing putting down their phone for hours at a time. Maybe they dropped their phone in the toilet and so they never got my text. Maybe they’ve been kidnapped by space aliens, and the aliens desperately want to respond on their behalf but can’t read the text to respond to it.
(Okay, probably not that last one.)
The point is that I don’t know what’s going on with them and why they aren’t answering my text. And, having played this game a whole bunch of times, I can say with certainty that the explanation I thought I had at first — the one that was making me so upset — is only occasionally correct. When I find myself spinning off into explaining why someone else is doing what they’re doing, particularly if those explanations are upsetting to me in some way, it’s really useful for me to ask “How do I know that?” And, when the answer comes back, as it almost always does, that I don’t really know, I just suspect or think or fear, the next question is always “What else could it be?” I try to get at least five possible alternate explanations. If I can’t think of that many, it’s useful for me to ask someone else. We can brainstorm alternate explanations together.
After having done this exercise for decades, I’ve noticed some patterns. If I look really deeply at what’s going on in my head when I spin off like this, I find that it often boils down to one of three things:
- I’m trying to read other peoples’ minds, in spite of all the evidence that I can’t do that.
- I’m trying to predict the future, again in spite of all the evidence that I can’t do that.
- I’m making shit up about the world that doesn’t actually have any relationship to reality.
I can’t read minds, I can’t predict the future, and the stuff I make up in my head often doesn’t connect to reality. If I want to live a calm peaceful life, it’s important to stay connected to reality. And, many times, that means acknowledging that I just don’t know, at least right now, why other people are doing what they’re doing.