Experience doesn’t quietly disappear; we integrated the past into the living present. Emotional events become a part of who we are. The past influences future interpretations and motivates or discourages action. After working through traumatic events, we may gratefully declare, “I’m glad that’s over!” But it’s not over. It’s never really over. Emotional relics will continue to surface in the present. The excruciating pain etched its mark on your soul.
We organize emotions and thoughts into a coherent story—not consciously but automatically, tidying experience into usable chunks. The self-created stories give events meaning. Memory stores bits and pieces of assigned cause and effect to better navigate the future. Reducing an experience to practical guiding knowledge is the essence of wisdom. We are meaning-making machines. We want to know who, we want to know why and we want to know how. The answers become the foundation for future action. A bad relationship provides wisdom to avoid partners with similar attributes. These bits and pieces of knowledge are mental maps. They provide context for interpreting experience. Although the experience is new, we can still navigate with confidence.
When the mental map is flawed—we assign faulty meaning to the past—our appraisal of the present will also be flawed; erroneous mental maps distort perceptions. Mundane events can strike unnecessary fear, anger or sadness because of defective associations to a hurtful past. Significant mental map distortions disrupt our lives, constantly alerting danger where no danger exists. The more disconnected from reality, the more dysfunctional choices become. We spin our wheels with inappropriate reactions. Our responses—based on erroneous assumptions—seldom create effective response. We respond to the painful past, not the promising present. We become protective instead of open. Our ineffective responses further complicate the mental maps. This vicious cycle of incorrect interpretations and inappropriate responses are not self-correcting. They are confusing. We believe we are responding correctly but are continually failing to achieve objectives.
How do we see through the smoke screen of distorted interpretations?
Examining behavioral responses is part of the answer. We must focus attention on the chain of events: the trigger, emotional reaction, and the subsequent behavior. This awareness empowers change. The reactionary chain of response is so heavily shroud in automatic and unconscious motivations that the process is susceptible to post occurrence misinterpretations. These processes operate often in inaccessible areas of the brain; awareness of the steps—trigger, felt emotion, and following behavior—must proceed educated guesses of what’s occurring. Protecting our ego, we naturally want to point at the trigger, blame it for stirring our emotions, and justify our bitter and punishing behaviors that follow.
Without awareness of errant patterns, we are doomed to repeat the same errors; reinforcing the cycle, etching deeper impressions in the mind, requiring more work and more guidance and more sessions to escape. If we continue to respond the same way, we can expect the same results. Usually, we don’t need to hasten our pace; we need to completely change directions. But changing directions is difficult. Simple physics teach us that continuing in the same direction is the path of least resistance. But changing direction implicitly acknowledges previous error—we were wrong. The protective ego resists this acknowledgment. Taking personal responsibility for error is essential, until we do, no change is possible.
The protective ego generates excuses—excuses not change. New insights are effectively matched with discrediting facts. We desire change but hope for change outside of ourselves. “My relationship would be better if my partner would stop making me angry.” Dreaming of the world changing to make our lives better distracts us from the real work. These dreams of a better world temporarily shelter from the frustrations of a confusing present. Dreams are nice—and sometimes even necessary—but dreams must be realistic before they can be fulfilled. Realistic dream fulfillment demands effective action. Successful dream fulfillment through action then validates effective mental maps, building confidence, and paving the way for other improvements. The experience, the trigger, the emotion and an effective response that successfully achieves desired outcomes provides an effective mental map for future use. It illuminates effective behavioral reactions.
We must escape painful cycles of stagnation—the same action, the same failures—if we are to flourish. We can lift the clouds of deception and stand on solid ground. This escape requires present moment awareness, effective mental maps followed by productive action. We may need professional hand holding to challenge the repeated settling back to familiar losing routines. But we can do this.
A religious instructor once taught if all you do is muster enough desire to experiment upon these words; the actions themselves provide proof of their validity. When mental maps are distorted, we need to create new mental maps for guidance. This comes from skeptical examination of thoughts, identifying excuses, and challenging automatic responses. We experiment with new behaviors—even if they don’t make sense at first. We adopt new behaviors we observed through proven sources. We awkwardly implement them. Conscious action is always awkward. But eventually the new behaviors become normal, than habit, than automatic.
Experiment with proven principles of action. Overtime new behaviors change the trajectory of our life. New actions prove their worth only with patience and repetition. Past faulty mental maps will interfere at first. We naturally want to return to the past. Our mind will find flimsy evidence to discredit healthy change. Small disruptions become excuses to abandon effortful practice, we weary and seek escape. We prefer the comfort of unproductive automatic responses. But over time, the new becomes the automatic.
The new seeds of action eventually break through the cold ground of sorrows. New mental maps create a cycle of positive action. Self-confidence stemming from success provides shelter from the inevitable storms of life. We cannot solve every potential obstacle before taking action; we must move forward with uncertainty. Each difficult step illuminates more of the path. With patience and consistency, desires become reality. We no longer futilely spin our wheels with ineffective responses. At first, the minuscule gains often are hardly noticeable. But when we look back, we discover how far we actually have traveled. The peace of a flourishing life descends upon our minds; a life well-lived. ~Troy Murphy