While reflecting on an experience a few days ago, a vision of a trout thrashing on a shiny metal hook popped into my head. I imagined she had been swimming along peacefully, when she spied something that looked familiar and reacted by snapping at it. She was hooked!
What caused me to imagine a hooked trout? I was that trout. I had been hooked! I’m surprised I didn’t find a hole in my cheek. What happened? I was scrolling through my emails to catch up after the holiday. I hadn’t looked at my phone for two days and was feeling guilty, as if not checking my messages on a holiday is a mortal sin.
I appreciate all the conveniences of smart phones and electronic communication, and I’m acutely aware of the challenges created by emails, texts, tweets, etc. Specifically, the challenge of context, or the lack thereof, which we then fill in with assumptions. The brain, in its effort to categorize and generalize data quickly, (to minimize energy expenditure) fills in missing information.
Think about it. If you can’t hear all of the words to a song, don’t you fill in the gaps with whatever seems to make sense? (Check below to see some of my favorite wrong lyrics.)
Imagine you have had uncomfortable or negative encounters with someone. Then you receive an email from that person. What are some of the things you might say to yourself before you open and read that message? Most of us will experience a brain that goes into high gear, remembering conversations, thoughts and feelings at the time, thoughts and feelings processed later (what you should have said), and the meaning behind the email just received.
I received an email from someone I don’t particularly appreciate. I have observed this person berate people, interrupt others, and negate other people’s perspectives. I have tried to put myself into this person’s shoes to better understand their behavior. It didn’t work. I now try to remain neutral about this person, but I’m not always successful.
What happened with the email? I read it and had an instant reaction (negative). I then struggled for more than forty minutes to craft a response that was neutral and informative. You see, rather than taking a moment to take a deep breath and notice my thoughts and reactions, I moved into action. I was thrashing from that shiny hook!
Feeling annoyed by the language, the statements, and the requests that weren’t phrased as requests, I began to mutter snide comments about the author. I began to write a reply while I was still in the steely grip of my reaction. (That could be why it took me more than forty minutes to craft a four-sentence reply.)
I would type out a sentence, read it, and think, “I can’t say that!” I’d delete and start again. I’d write another sentence, “No, that’s passive-aggressive. Don’t engage in the same behavior.” (Notice a judgment there?) This went on for way-too-long before I wrote something I deemed appropriate to send.
Forty minutes in a twenty-four-hour day doesn’t sound like a lot of time. However, I wasn’t finished. You see, I continued to mull over that email, previous interactions, and thoughts of future interactions, all negative.
I had now spent emotional and mental energy reacting and re-reacting to an email. And, because my mind, emotions, and physical body are connected, I probably had been clenching my teeth, holding numerous muscle groups rigid, and breathing shallowly, for two days every time I thought about it.
Holy Crud, Wonder Woman! I had been hooked by an email and allowed my brain to focus on thoughts, feelings, memories, and assumptions all negative. (Remember, the brain focuses on the negative rather than the positive.) Two days later I realized that thoughts of the email and all that was now connected to it were still drifting across my mindscape.
My efforts to be mindful had been blown away like leaves in an November rainstorm. When I realized I had been and still was hooked, I started to berate myself. This time I caught myself and began to practice self-compassion. It would have been easy to indulge in self-chastisement for failing (again) at being mindful and being unconscious to my thoughts and reactions.
Meditation teachers say that when you notice a thought, just notice it, and return your focus to the breath. The brain is always busy, and will engage in ‘monkey mind’ behaviors. The goal is to notice that you have shifted your attention, without judgment and begin again.
I have another opportunity to begin again, to reset my negative thoughts, let go of tightly held emotions and assumptions. I am learning, and learning is rarely easy or perfect. I’m thankful that I can stop, return to my breath, and practice not snapping at that shiny hook.