I once caught myself whistling.
I had done something to someone, that I really regretted, and I felt sick about it. I kept replaying the scene, wishing I’d done something different. Over, and over.
Then I was working on math homework, and just kind of distracted myself from being a person interacting with other people altogether. It was just me, and the symbols, the logic.
After the math homework, I was on my way to meet up with people to go for a run, and I caught myself whistling some sort of cheery tune. I was shocked: “Malcolm, you can’t be whistling..! You’re supposed to be all upset about this thing you did!”
I came so close. To believing what I told myself. I very nearly threw myself back down into that pit of despair and angst and regret and nausea. But then I realized I didn’t have to. That me stewing over what I’d done wasn’t helping anyone at all.
So I kept whistling.
My parents had told me, since I was quite young, that I could choose what emotions I felt in response to a situation.
This always seemed annoying, coming from them. Of course they’d say that, if they wanted me to stop yelling. I didn’t believe it. Or maybe, I vaguely believed it, but I didn’t alieve it).
That day, with the whistling, I got it. I think that this was probably the first instance I can recall of me doing deliberate mindshifting, of the kind that I would later call mindfulness field training. I noticed that my mind was aiming towards one broad state, and I pointed it to another.
To be fair, I suppose that in many ways, I’d done this every time I decided to stop IMing people and get back to work. But what’s different here is that it was mostly in my own head—I didn’t so much decide to do a different thing, but to feel a particular way. The physical cue of the whistling helped me notice what was going on. Brienne has some cool videos about using physical cues to make shifts in cognitive patterning easier.
Another story: I took a final exam in Mechanics of Deformable Solids. Found the exam pretty straightforward and fairly short, so I spent a lot of time making my answers really clear and elegant, with nice diagrams. Realized with 15 minutes to go in this 2.5h exam that I’d only done 3/4 questions. I promptly scrambled to get as many points on question 4 as possible.
Leaving the exam, I felt like such an idiot—I could have gotten a really high mark, likely top in the class, if I’d paid more attention. I was berating myself intensely as I walked home, in a manner not totally unlike the first story. This time, though, I was aware of a concept that I got from Zig Ziglar, which (from memory) goes:
When you’re down—it’s okay to feel down. Don’t try to force yourself to get right back up. But you also don’t need to stay down forever. Decide on a day that’ll be your get-up and go-up day, and when that day comes, get up, and go!
So at that moment (about 11:40am) I decided, “fine, I have until 1pm to stew about this, then I’m going to get on with my day”. But moments after giving myself permission to stew, I was bored of it—surprisingly, it felt effortful to continue berating myself—and at 11:42am I was grinning and looking forward to things.
This is kind of like the reminder of this too shall pass. If you expect future you to not be upset about something, and current you isn’t getting anything out of being upset about it, then you can sometimes just be un-upset now. Note that sometimes being upset is helpful! The movie Inside Out (highly recommended) beautifully illustrates that sadness can be a really powerful emotion for communicating to others a need to be cared for.
Guilt, on the other hand… well, Nate Soares has written plenty on that.
Also, note that I didn’t try to stop being upset right away. I gave myself full permission to stew—to some extent, I even encouraged it. Nate has also written a bit about why this works. It’s also related to psychological reactance) (the thing underlying “reverse psychology”).
Constantly consciously expanding the boundaries of thoughtspace and actionspace.
Creator of Complice, a system for achieving your important goals.