In the bubble of poor me

If a man acts or speaks with a pure mind, joy follows him as his shadow
— The Dhammapada

By John-Paul Flintoff

Today I’ve been troubled by miserable thoughts. So much so that Harriet said sternly, “Don’t look so hangdog!”

I didn’t want to look hangdog, but I couldn’t snap out of it. Why not? I know for sure that when people – other people – get stuck in what I call the “bubble of poor me”, they lose connection with others, and generally become less fun to be around.

I want to be fun to be around!

But I wasn’t ready. Why not? I’m supposed to be “good at this stuff”. I coach people, I run workshops. Where were all my clever ideas now?

I tried looking at it another way. I was aware that I was having “automatic negative thoughts” (as the cognitive behavioural therapists put it). Or (as my trainers at CTI expressed the same idea, more dramatically) I was under the control of my inner saboteur.

A part of me “knew” that I can ignore the voice of the saboteur. That it only represents one point of view, and there’s always an alternative if I choose to look for it. It’s not “the truth”. I have a choice.

I also “knew”, because I’ve seen it happen often enough with others, that if I concentrated on the other person’s needs, everything would go better for me too.

But I wasn’t ready to do that. I wasn’t even willing to believe it. I was still in the bubble. What about me? What about my needs? Why is everybody being so beastly? Poor me poor me etc etc.

It was horrible.

But I did one thing well: I gave myself a bit of time and space to think. I sat in my car, and took out a pen and paper, on a hunch that this would help.

I drew a little picture of the two people whose actions, in the last few days, have stirred a lot of these negative thoughts. And I started to write down every negative thought I could find. My instinct told me DO NOT WRITE THAT, IT WON’T HELP.

The list started (instinctively, not according to any plan) with a handful of statements about the other person, then moved on to include statements about me – a transition that is itself probably worth more attention. (What made that happen?)

Here’s a small sample of the things I wrote, to give you a sense how horrible it was:

She doesn’t want to know
She’s wasting your time
You handled it badly
You’re a sucker
You think you’re so clever
You’re alone, now

After a while, I stopped. I put the lid on my pen. I felt a bit shaky, but after a moment I was ready to start driving. And as I drove I remembered something magical that happened a decade ago – when I accidentally invented an exercise that I’ve since learned is like something in 12-step programmes.

I was alone, on a plane from London to New York, and instinctively I started writing down a list of things I resented about one particular person. Things had got so bad, I just felt compelled to write.

The list went on and on and on. Every time I thought I’d got everything down, another resentment popped up. Until eventually I stopped: I couldn’t think of anything else. And, miraculously, immediately, the resentment disappeared. (At the time, anyway, and with only fleeting reappearances since.)

Driving home, I wondered what kind of magic might happen this time.

If any.

And this is what happened.

I don’t know if it was because of the changing perspective that came from moving, in the car. I don’t know if it was because I had faced up to those horrible thoughts, and written them down, instead of trying to ignore them. I don’t know if it would have worked just as well to say these things out loud to Harriet, about these two people, instead of looking hangdog. I only know that I started truly to be able to imagine the other person’s point of view.

And from there I recognised that I had been careless. I noticed the things I had done, over a longer period than the last few days, that might have created mistaken and unhelpful assumptions on both sides. I saw that we had both allowed our relationship to get a bit off-whack.

But this wasn’t about apportioning blame. More importantly, I started to recognise that the other person, in each case, was not a faulty human being. I started to like them again. And I started to see some opportunities for making things better.

Posted: January 21, 2015