We’ve all been there at least once in our lives. Stuck in some awful situation that has us out of our depth and feeling paralysed. Whether it’s sitting down for an important exam we did not study for, or a work project that is going badly, or a renovation where termites have been discovered, or Uncle Sam requesting a backlog of business taxes you haven’t saved for, or an accident where you were at fault, or your wife wants a divorce, or anything else that seems awful…the situation feels more like a ‘shit-uation’ when you’re stuck in it. The resulting emotions are unpleasant and the actions you take are often less than ideal. When people talk about something hitting the fan, it seems an apt way to describe it (I don’t normally use swear words, but they have their place here). Wouldn’t it be great to never have to think or feel this way about ‘awful’ situations ever again?
Let’s analyse the unpleasant situation. If we were to break it down into its basic building blocks, we would see that a situation is merely a circumstance, or a set of facts, that we have put meaning into. We all have circumstances to deal with and we all have our own conclusions about them. We are all going to keep on facing circumstances as long as we live. That’s just the way life is. Things will go on happening and we will go on having thoughts about those things.
It is how we choose to react to these circumstances that what will make the difference to our sense of well-being.
As awful as a circumstance seems, it is only awful because we think it is awful. Our first reaction to an event is to have a thought. Even when you are fired up and acting primally, there was still a fleeting, split-second thought that preceded your action. To make a circumstance ‘awful,’ we simply have a thought about the situation where we judge it as being ‘awful.’ Here are some negative thoughts that you may recognise:
- ‘This exam is going to be so hard and I’m going to fail it.’
- ‘I can’t afford to fix it.’
- ‘It’s too complicated for me to change now.’
- ‘This is going to leave me broke.’
- ‘I was so stupid. How could I have done that while driving?’
- ‘There’s no way out. We’re screwed.’
- ‘This divorce is so unfair. It’s going to destroy me.’
What is a Circumstance?
A circumstance is neutral. It is fact. For example, it is a fact that it is 50 degrees F outside right now. Circumstances are the facts behind every story. An event or a thing that happens is a circumstance or a series of circumstances. Every circumstance is neutral. Circumstances are always present and they are always neutral. This is important to grasp as a concept.
We cannot control circumstances. We cannot control the weather or the orbit of the earth, just as we cannot control the daily things that happen. We cannot control how people act. The only thing we can control is how we think, feel and act as a result of a circumstance.
You can choose how to think about any circumstance and this will determine how you feel about that circumstance. No matter what situation you are facing, you get to choose the thoughts you will have about it. It does not have to lead to negative or awful conclusions. It does not have to lead to drama. You could make something seem better for yourself merely by changing your thoughts about it, or you could decide that you want to view it as a negative event. It is up to you. How you think and feel about a circumstance starts in your brain. It starts with a thought.
Our thoughts put meaning into circumstances. Circumstances are facts and our thoughts about them give them meaning. For example, imagine the circumstance of it being 50 degrees Fahrenheit (or 10 degrees Celsius) outside. Someone indoors asks what it’s like outdoors. A person from Fiji stands outside and thinks that it’s freezing, so they say that it’s awful out there. Then someone from Maine goes out and thinks that it’s fairly mild, so they’ll say that the weather is pleasant. See how the weather circumstance was neutral, but the thoughts gave different meanings to it?
Another example…a teenager finds out that she is pregnant. Her parents think her life will be over before it’s begun, but she and her boyfriend think that the baby is a special sign of their love for each other. Her grandmother thinks it is wonderful but her teachers think it will negatively affect her studies. The circumstance is the pregnancy. The pregnancy is neutral. It is a fact. How people think about it will give the pregnancy meaning, whether positive or negative in outlook.
What are some circumstances you are dealing with? Try thinking about them in a factual way. Examples: My car is overdue for a service by 1000 miles. My brother is not talking to me. My wife goes to sleep at 9pm while I stay up late. My bank account has $10,000 dollars in it. My dog barks when I’m at work and the neighbours have reported it. My business did not make a profit last year. My son is a drug dealer. My mother has been diagnosed with Alzheimers. There is a large spider in the garage and my daughter screams whenever she sees it moving. I won a ham at the raffles. I eat a whole pizza for dinner when I’m on my own. I drink 5 cups of coffee a day.
Your turn…what are your circumstances?
Now that we know that all circumstances are neutral, even yours, you must be on the lookout for how others view the circumstances that affect you. Others will tell us that a circumstance is not neutral. They will say things like, ‘Oh, when that happens it’s just not fair.’ Or, ‘We knew he’d react that way. He’s so selfish,’ or ‘Crime is wrong and he should do the time.’ These are judgements about circumstances.
In the example of crime, let’s remember that crime is also a neutral circumstance. Kidnapping is a neutral circumstance (even if you think it is a bad thing to do), but how we choose to think about it puts meaning upon it. If you wish to think of it as a negative because others think in the same way, that is fine when you are intentional about that opinion becoming your thought. When a group of people collectively believe that their opinion is the right one, it can be easy to believe the meaning they have attached to the circumstance. Remember, the circumstance behind their judgement is still neutral and you can choose how you will think about any circumstance. Watch out for this trap!
Another trap we fall into is looking for evidence that a circumstance is not neutral. We are used to finding proof of circumstances being positive or negative, but again, that is an old habit of placing meaning onto neutral facts.
You will keep on having thoughts about circumstances, even when circumstances are neutral. That is normal. What’s new is that you can choose the meaning that you add to circumstances. You do this by choosing the thoughts you have about a circumstance. Your thoughts can be positive or negative about that circumstance. Make your thoughts intentional and choose how you want to think about your circumstances.
Okay, so let’s say you are facing divorce. Your old, negative thought could be: ‘This divorce is so unfair. It’s going to destroy me.’ The neutral circumstance here is that divorce is the legal way to divide up people and things. It doesn’t have to have a negative impact upon you. Your new, positive thought could be: ‘Divorce is a process and I will get through it and be stronger and kinder than before.’
Facing a tough exam? Your old, negative thought could be: ‘This exam is going to be so hard and I’m going to fail it.’ The neutral circumstance: The exams is there to test your knowledge. New, positive thought about this situation: ‘I know as much as I know in this moment, and I’m here to show what I know.’ If you fail the exam, you could choose to think: ‘Next time I will be better prepared. This was a good reminder for me to study smarter.’
Business taxes? Your old, negative thought could be: ‘Paying this is going to leave me broke.’ The neutral circumstance: This is a tax bill of $X amount and it has a due date. New, positive thought about this situation: ‘I will call the tax department and find a way to pay what’s due, and I will put aside a percentage of my earnings towards business tax in future.’
Car accident? Your old, negative thought could be: ‘I’m an idiot and I could have killed someone.’ The neutral circumstance is that you drove into the back of a car while looking at your phone and no-one was hurt. Some new thoughts to have about this circumstance: ‘I made a mistake and an accident occurred. I own my actions. I will apologise to those affected and do my best to cover costs and fix things as the decent human that I am. I will have strong emotions about this accident and that is normal. They will pass. I have learned to be more careful when driving and I will always keep my eyes on the road.’
Let’s think of the worst case scenario here and say that someone was badly injured because of you. The neutral circumstance is that a person is in hospital with specific injuries and your car was the source of impact. What thoughts could you possibly have here that aren’t negative? Well, here are some examples: ‘This is due to my lack of attention and care while driving. From now on, I will be the safest driver out there. I will never look at my phone while driving. I am going to be judged by some people and their feelings are theirs to experience. That is their right. If the people I affected do not accept my apology, I will understand. I will also have feelings of regret (or worse) and that is normal. However, I cannot undo my mistake. All I can do is be the best person I can while dealing with the consequences of my actions. I will learn a lot from this and I will become a better person because of this. I will dedicate myself to helping others by talking about my experience.’ See how these thoughts will support you through this circumstance, rather than let you spiral into self-loathing?
Failure to complete a business project on schedule? The neutral circumstance is that you did not complete x, y and z as promised and that your boss/manager/client is going to be disappointed. Some new thoughts to have here: ‘I am responsible here. I accept that certain obstacles slowed my progress and that I could have done more to mitigate these factors. I will state the facts and face the consequences. I will be prepared to share fresh strategies to get us to completion.’ Let’s say that you are fired over this…you could think, ‘Thank you for the learning experience. I am more than ready to move on. When one door closes, another opens. I see this as an opportunity for something different.’
In each of the above examples, we changed the thinking to be intentionally positive. You could just as easily have decided to be intentionally negative. For example, you could decide to think this way about divorce: ‘Getting divorced is really unpleasant. This experience will serve to remind me never to marry again.’ It is up to you to decide how you want to intentionally think about any circumstance. As a coach, I’ll encourage you to think intentionally in ways that make life more productive and easy, but ultimately, your thoughts are up to you.
By now, you should be able to understand how your thoughts can turn any neutral circumstance (that may formerly have been seen as a negative) into something manageable and potentially positive. You now have the power to reframe any thoughts you have about the circumstances (always neutral) you are dealing with, so that your thoughts are supportive and positive rather than destructively negative. Hit the fan with intentional thought and you’ll never find yourself in another shituation!