You learn a lot quicker from negative experiences than you do from positive ones. The stick is more damaging than the carrot is enticing. There’s a good reason for that. If you get whacked hard enough by the stick, it won’t matter how many carrots you have. But the result is that you will continuously look for bad news, zero in on the negativity, and lose sight of the big picture. You take for granted all the blessings you have, are ignorant of your resources, and blind to grace.
When people come in for counseling, they can often see all their problems very clearly. They can talk for hours about the terrible things that happened to them, the effect the problems have on them, and why they can’t change. They make the same mistakes over and over again and believe that, if only they could feel badly enough about themselves, they would do differently. They don’t. Heaping guilt upon themselves and reproaching others does nothing other than burden them with guilt and anger, it does nothing to free them.
When I see people in counseling, I’m always on the lookout for the exception to the problems presented to me. If you have problems with your anger, I want to know as much about the times you did not have an outburst as the times you did. If you are addicted, I want to know about the times you found another way to cope. If you’re in for marriage counseling, I want to know when you get along. This is not just because I like to look on the sunny side of things, or whistle in the dark, or don’t take your concerns seriously. I do this because I like to cook.
If you’re going to change and live a more hope-filled life, you will have to learn to cook, too. It’s easy, just follow the steps. First:
To cook, you need a fire. To start your fire, you’re going to need kindling. Find some dry leaves, some twigs, a little bark. You don’t need a big, honking piece of wood to get your fire started, as a matter of fact, it’s better if you don’t try to ignite one directly. All you need is a small exception, a minor victory, something you might not notice.
Notice the exceptions to the behavior you want to change. If you are usually depressed, notice the few times you manage to smile. If you’re anxious, find when you are brave. Don’t let these instances pass unnoticed. They’ll all get your fire started.
Ignite the Kindling
The next step is to ignite the fire. You do this by calling your own attention to the exceptional occurrence. Focus on it a little bit. If you are depressed, be more mindful of that smile. If you are anxious, don’t let your bravery fade into the background.
Now add fuel to the fire. Sustain the positive experience a few seconds longer. Cherish it in your mind. Let the experience be as intense as possible. Make it a multimedia experience. If you’ve smiled, then laugh. If you’ve stood up for yourself, then actually stand up, put out your chest, and strengthen your spine. Look for what is new in this experience. Does a feeling of relief follow closely behind? Are you relaxed? Is your heart beating slower? Let the experience, no matter how minor it might be, matter. Call it the first step, a new beginning.
Feel the Warmth
Next, put out your hands and feel the warmth of the fire you built. Absorb the experience. Let it sink in. This will prime and sensitize your neural networks. It will create an actual change in the brain. The pathways of delight will be easier to find. The road to responsibility will be clearly mapped.
There, you’ve built the fire and are enjoying it. It’s already making a change in your life. It’s warming you up, giving you cheer, signaling help, frightening the wild animals away. You could stop there, and it would be complete; but you don’t have to stop. You can use your fire to cook.
When you cook something, you’re generally taking something that is not very good; something unpalatable, tasteless, and indigestible, and turning it into something that sustains life and tastes great. It’s magical, if you think about it.
So, you have some negativity in your life; a disappointment, a betrayal, a despair. Take it and apply it to the fire you built. Hold both the positive and the negative together in your mind. The positive will begin to associate with the negative and, if you’ve built up your fire enough, will begin to overwhelm the negative. The positive will start to sooth, reduce, and replace the negativity.
Here’s an example. I knew a guy who was abused as a child and developed this belief that he was unlovable. He could come up with a million examples of how he was incapable of being loved, but he could only come up with one example of how he was loved. He had a son who looked up to him and wanted him to be around. That was enough.
It wasn’t enough at first, because he dismissed the love he felt from his son as childish, but, when he built a fire from it, and permitted himself to have a positive experience, enrich it, absorb it, and link it to the negativity, then he was able to heal.
Would you look at that! It’s an acronym:
Have a positive experience
Link the positive experience to the negative memories
It spells HEAL.
When he put the positive experience of being loved by his son together with the negative experience of being abused, he did heal. Being loved once changed everything. The abuse of the past took on a new meaning, one that deepened and strengthened the love of the present.