It is said that in his tour of India Buddha stopped in the city of Rajgir. Attracted by his fame, 500 Brahmins gathered to ask him to explain the path of illumination. Buddha, who normally explained his teachings through parables, told them 100 sūtras, and this is one of them.
“Long time ago, in a small town, lived a man who had 250 cows. The man was very proud of his cattle and was concerned about its well-being.
He assured that they could feed each day freely and that the stables were comfortable enough. The milk he got was of good quality and everyone praised him for that. Everything was perfect, he could not ask for more from life.
However, one day a group of hungry wolves attacked one of the cows and devoured it.
In the evening, when the man counted his livestock, he realized that a cow was missing.
Then he thought, – What a disaster! My flock is incomplete -.
As the days passed, he began to overlook the rest of the cows.
He always thought: Why did it have to happen to me? What is the meaning of having all these other cows? –
With this idea in his mind, obsessed with the death of one of his cows and thinking that nothing would ever be like before, he led the rest of the cattle to the cliff, to death.
Though this story may seem unlikely, even close to madness, the fact is that we often behave like the man of the story. And, as a result, we turn into the architects of our true misfortune, maximizing a problem that could have been very small compared to what it became. In other words: we make a storm in a teacup.
Why do we focus on the negative side?
Some people assume adversity from a more positive perspective, but most focus more on the negative events and remind them more in detail. Indeed, it has been seen that our brain processes the positive and negative information relatively differently.
Negative emotions usually involve deeper thought, so the information is usually processed more in-depth regard to situations that generate positive experiences. As a general rule, we think more to unpleasant events than to happy ones. Negative emotions, painful events and unpleasant comments, have a greater impact than good ones. In addition, bad impressions and negative stereotypes are formed faster and are more resistant to change than good ones.
This is clearly demonstrated by an experiment conducted at Carnegie Mellon University. Participants won or lost the same amount of money, but the anguish caused by the loss was much greater than the joy that accompanied the win. To worsen things, it has also been noted that negative events are more resilient in memory than good ones.
Everything seems to indicate that our tendency to focus on what is negative is due to the fact that we try to collect as much details as possible about what happened to avoid suffering again in the future. But if we are unable to turn the page fast, we can fall into our own trap and condemn ourselves to the unhappiness that we are trying to avoid by immersing ourselves in a vicious circle of rumination.
Five signals that we are losing the perspective
We act as the character of the story every time that:
1. We focus exclusively on the loss and we are unable to see the chances that we still have in our favor.
2. Let negativity attack us, so we end up seeing the whole world in gray.
3. We think that the pain, anguish and suffering we experience for a living event will never pass.
4. We make a storm in a teacup, transforming a small problem into a drama.
5. We only note events that confirm our negative view of the facts, discarding the rest.
How to avoid making a storm in a teacup?
To avoid behaving like the character of the story, making a storm in a teacup, we must act on three levels: emotional, rational, and behavioral.
1. Take note of our emotions. Trying to hide or suppress emotions does not work. We should, however, take note of them, call them by name and, above all, be aware of their impact on us. It is not always easy, because sometimes we can deny that we are angry or sad only because we have been taught by young people that we should not react like that.
We want to believe that we are strong and have the control, so we think that recognizing those emotions makes us weaker people. Is the opposite! As long as we do not recognize how we feel we will continue to be controlled by emotions. All emotions are valuable and we should not judge them, just recognize them and understand their impact.
2. Change our thoughts. The second step is to redirect thinking to potentialities instead of focusing exclusively on loss. It is true that when we pass through hard times it is difficult to see the positive side, so it is important to get out of our perspective.
Imagine being another person, maybe that friend who always gives you good advice and helps you get out of negative moments: what would you say to yourself?
The most important thing to do is to identify any misleading thinking that adds gas to the fire, usually these are erroneous generalizations, such as thinking “everything will go wrong” or “I will never overcome it.” Later, we will have to replace them with more objective and realistic thoughts. Of course, it is not about taking a toxic optimism, but finding a midpoint.
3. Act accordingly. Thirdly, it is crucial to make sure that we are making the right steps. To get out of any difficult situation you need to act, for not remaining stuck in suffering.
One of the most interesting Buddhist quotes teaches us that “a thousand miles journey begins with the first step.” The point is that we are often afraid of taking this step, because even if we do not want to recognize it, we feel more comfortable and confident in suffering rather than discovering the unknown. It is not even necessary to become anxious, just take small steps to take us away from the situation that creates discomfort, small steps that do not generate too much anxiety.
Zhang, L. & Baumeister, R. F. (2006) Your money or your self-esteem: threatened egotism promotes costly entrapment in losing endeavors. Pers Soc Psychol Bull; 32(7): 881-893.