My wife and I live in Maine. It’s a beautiful state, and the weather in the summer is usually gorgeous – mid seventies, not too humid. This year, not so much. It has been rather cold for June, especially in the mornings. Now, my wife is always up before me. Her routine is to go downstairs to her office upon getting up and to start organizing her day.
The other day, when I came down to start my day, I was greeted with, “Why is it so cold here!? I hate Maine, it’s supposed to be warm! We’re moving someplace warmer!”
I responded, “Good morning, honey. If it is cold, why are you sitting there in just your nightie? Why don’t you have a sweater on?”
“I’m not supposed to need a sweater, damn it! It’s summer, isn’t it?”
So, what is wrong with this picture? Is it more likely that we could make the weather warmer or that we could make my wife warmer? The answer is a big “Duh!” However, my wife was a prisoner of her thoughts that morning. Her internal script was written in her teens and twenties when she lived in Washington, DC. This script said that when it is June, you need only a nightie in the morning. This thought was stubbornly telling her she didn’t need a sweater, and that Maine was the problem.
We are all prisoners of our thoughts from time to time. We numbly follow the scripts and manuals that reside in our brain and fail to examine how and why they were written in the first place. We can ignore the cold hard facts of the moment (pardon the pun!). Sometimes, as with my wife that morning, we only cause our own suffering. When she relented and put on a sweater, she quickly became comfortable and carried on with her morning. Sometimes, however, we create unnecessary conflict with others when we blindly follow these internal manuals. The conflict can be minor, like a small spat over how to best clean a fry pan, or make a bed. Or bigger and much more of a problem.
Failing to see when we are imposing or inflicting our ingrained rules on others can lead to significant pain. For example, if you believe that your sister-in-law should share the same warm relationship with your mother-in-law that you do, you might, without thinking, try to “instruct” her about how she should act towards her. But this can be very insulting to your sister-in-law, and can lead to long-term misunderstandings and resentment between you and her.
Or, just as bad, we can fail to challenge our own behavior and not seek needed changes and enlightenment. For example, a man who discovers in adolescence how much fun it is to flirt might develop a lifelong habit of flirting. It’s fun when someone responds! It makes him feel good about himself! This external validation can become a huge problem for him, however, and an even bigger issue for the person with whom he has a romantic relationship.
The way around both of these problems involves pausing and examining your assumptions. Challenging your behavior rather than blaming others. Becoming aware of the thoughts that drive your behavior.
Do you write scripts in your own head for others to follow? Do you want other people to be different so you can feel better? Do you believe things you learned decades ago without questioning them? Coaching can help you manage these thoughts so you can have better relationships and be happier. Sign up for a free consultation to learn more by clicking HERE.
Thus, instead of jumping on your sister-in-law, and informing her how she should treat your mother-in-law, reflect instead on why you feel the need to do this in the first place and ask yourself whether you are making assumptions based on your own ignorance of the situation. You might find that you are able to let your adult sister-in-law decide for herself how to act, or perhaps you will realize that there is a more constructive and collaborative way to help her. Or, you might learn that the issues she has with your mother-in-law are rooted in their own unique past that has nothing to do with you. Just realizing that there are things you don’t know about the situation can save you from wading in where you’re not welcome.
The flirtatious man-child has a lot of work to do. One of the most important keys to unlocking his thought-prison is for him to recognize – to become aware – that being flirtatious is not a permanent part of his personality. It is possible through self-examination (and maybe some psychotherapy) to see what is driving that adolescent behavior and to grow out of it. Then, he can have meaningful loving long-term relationships.
What are your thought prisons? What scripts were written in your brain years ago that you still blindly follow and sometimes expect others to recite? What dubious assumptions have become so much a part of you that it is hard to notice them? It can be very rewarding to find out, and you can spare yourself and your loved ones much unnecessary trouble if you do!
Eric is Senior Counsel to the Maine Public Advocate as his day job. He has a degree in Biological Anthropology from Harvard College. Eric's creative outlets are as a multi-instrumentalist (mandolin, guitar, bass, piano, and pretty much everything he picks up), singer, songwriter, and writer. He has two amazing adult children, and has been happily married to their life coach mom for over 30 years.