January 15, 2014

What Happens When We Give Ourselves Negative Advice.

Negative advice is anything that can be boiled down to the three words: don’t do it.

This advice doesn’t feel good to me, and it’s not because it’s cautionary. I love caution—caution is being able to use foresight to uncover how I am affecting the world around me with my thoughts, words and behavior, and sometimes other people clue me into different perspectives on all that stuff in ways that are really valuable to me.

But when somebody tells me to be careful, I do one of two things:

1) I deflect it and do not respond because it has gone in one proverbial ear and out the other;

or 2) I take it personally and start to feel like shit.

I start to feel like, great, here’s one more person who doesn’t really think I can do this.

These voices stick out to me. I recall faces and fingers and shirt collars from teachers and news anchors and radio personalities and friends and words, words, words: be careful about something, tread lightly, don’t do anything stupid.

Negative advice is more salient in my memory than run-of-the-mill advice, and quite frankly, there isn’t a whole lot of stellar advice I’ve been given, but in fairness, I remember the hell out of that, too.

I’ve heard a fair amount of negative advice. It accumulates, until that small voice of caution creates its own space in my brain, and I don’t even need negative advice anymore because I have it all, stored away, and anytime I strongly consider anything, it comes in to claim part of my conversation with myself.

And then the voice shifts nouns and pronouns around until I am talking to myself about myself, and I will come across: I don’t think I can do thisI don’t think this will work out. I will fail. 

For example, this is one of the pieces of negative advice I’ve been giving myself recently:

I can’t be a spiritual teacher. 

Let’s follow this example through: I discover a want of mine. This one happens to be that of wanting to be a spiritual teacher.

We all have wants, they generally feel directional: movement starts happening in the direction of our wants.

I think the moment right after we discover what we want is a very important moment, because that is the moment when we will discover how we feel about what we want. How we feel about what we want determines how we move forward: do we go toward our want with trepidation—looking to make sure we aren’t stepping on ground we shouldn’t be stepping on? Do we go without reservation, knocking tables over and hammering our steps into pavement? Do we walk to the edge of the cliff, look over, and decide to go home and have a beer instead?

This is often the moment where my negative advice creeps in, giving me all the reasons why I can’t do what I want to do:

You’re a 25-year-old girl, Brentan. Who would listen to you about anything? You don’t have anything figured out. You have as many ‘bad days’ as anyone else, so why would someone listen to you about how to deal with ‘bad days’?  What if you make this declaration and then no one wants to be around you? What if you fail?

These thoughts are actually very useful.

I have to think every thought I have is legitimate because it’s my thought: if it comes into my brain, then it is legitimate. It’s already here. Rooting. Doing what it does. Creating more thoughts. That’s what a thought does: it creates more thoughts—adjacent thoughts.

The thought is here, regardless of how I feel about it being here, so I may as well start looking at it as useful. That is the first shift: being able to call upon enough compassion that when our brain says: you”ll fail; our response is: thank you for the opportunity to look at how my thoughts work.

So, wonderful! We’ve decided that the thought is useful.

But it’s also bullshit. It’s bullshit because it’s just not true.

It’s not that the opposite of the thought is true—it’s not that I am secretly the best spiritual teacher in the world and my thoughts are just trying to keep me down—no, it’s that any thought that draws conclusions cannot possibly be true because it is perspective.

Negative advice is not true, it’s just perspective.

So if we know that it isn’t true (and I don’t see an argument wherein we could reach the conclusion that any piece of negative advice we give ourselves is true), then why do we believe it?

I ask this because—try telling my brain not to believe itself when the negative advice starts petering in. I dare you. Try telling my brain to remember to not take its thoughts too seriously, lest I actually start believing the message of the thoughts, and start behaving according to their boundaries.

When my negative advice tells me I’m too young to be a spiritual teacher, I need to remember to shift what I’m paying attention to.

Instead of paying attention to the contents of the thought (which will only piss me off and keep me from doing things in life that I actually want to do), I need to pay attention to the mechanics of the thought itself: why am I receiving negative advice from myself right now?

If the first shift is being able to look at negative advice as useful to our growth, then the second shift is being able to ask the question: what happened to trigger unkind thoughts?

If we just look at what is going on when we give ourselves negative advice, we realize this: the mind is injuring itself. The mind develops a story for why something won’t work out.

In all fairness, the mind will develop all kinds of stories, not just the ones where something doesn’t work out the way we want it to. The mind will develop stories of wild success, clever exit-strategies, and a host of if-then scenarios that will make us happy and sad and confused and all sorts of things.

And it makes complete sense that we would feed ourselves negative advice, because we have lived x-amount of years on this planet, and we have accumulated a database of observation, looking at failing businesses and marriages and educations and healths, and we look around at the cacophony of all of this and think: well, shit, I don’t want any of that to happen to me—I want to be flourishing in my business, in my marriage, my education and my health.

Of course we want to flourish.

Our cautionary negative advice will definitely help us flourish, but only if we’re looking at it as an opportunity to have a conversation with ourselves about why we are experiencing these thoughts. If we receive negative advice and become sensitive to its messaging, the jig is up—we’ll be swallowed into thought-land (at least for a while, we’ll always reemerge).

But when we get to the center of it all, the conclusion is to find gratitude that we even have thoughts at all. Gratitude is being able to clear space so that we no longer believe that the messaging of our thoughts is important, and it is the metaphysical broom that sweeps our systems clean so we may live and continue to be ourselves.

Be ourselves every damn day. Without apology.


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Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: Janell Rardon 

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