When we look back at our life, many of us can attest that major changes were set in motion by an upsetting event. So long as life is drifting along nicely, we usually don’t feel it necessary to question the purpose of our life, or leave our boyfriend, or suddenly become a nun, or quit our job, or stop talking to our parents, or start talking to our parents (!), or take off to live in South East Asia. It is often only when life kicks us out of our comfort zone that we are forced to pause, reflect on who we are and why we do what we do, and sometimes, to find the courage for real change.
When I asked my clients for upsets, which triggered change in their life, these are some of the examples they gave me:
· getting fired from a job
· finding out their spouse was having an affair
· a disagreement with their father
· feedback given by colleagues
· being immobilized by an accident
· being yelled at by a stranger
· being lied to by a friend
· a fight with a sibling
· a friend or family member falling ill or dying.
Most of you will probably agree that at least some of these situations would be upsetting or distressing. That’s exactly the point: some of them… to some of you… some of the time. An event quickly forgotten by you may be insufferable for me. Personally, I find it is upsetting when someone yells at me. To someone struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder, it is upsetting if the pens on their desk are not in a straight line. To someone having survived a war, fireworks going off on New Year’s Eve can be upsetting. If what qualifies as an upset is so different — then what is an upset? Upsets can be small events unfolding in a single moment or big events unfolding like a telenovela over a lifespan. Generally speaking, we experience something as upsetting whenever life is not how we think it should be. The difference between a small and a big upset depends on: a) how big the disparity is between what you experience vs. what you would like to experience and b) how much my experience in this very moment reminds you of something unpleasant from the past.
You may be familiar with the Jewish joke of a mother who gives her son a green and a red sweater for his birthday. The morning following his birthday, he wears the red sweater to breakfast and his mother comments dryly, ‘Oh, I see. You didn’t like the green one!’ This kind of irrational response is funny as a joke, but the joke is on us because this is how we often live life! The more emotion and story we attach to an event, the more successful we will be in feeling upset. If I can see a messed up haircut just as a messed up haircut, it is a minor upset. If I see a messed up haircut as further evidence for people mistreating me, or being disrespectful or careless with me, it has the potential to be turned into a major upset.
Few of us live with the constant awareness that we are only ever upset because we stare at a painting we created. Some of our paintings carry titles such as: Nobody Loves Me, I am Not Good Enough, You Don’t Care, or Life is Unfair. When we happen to pull out one of the paintings with a daunting title, our mood sinks and our life turns into one big mountain of discontent in the blink of an eye. In fact, these sudden shifts in our mood happen so fast, we don’t even know ourselves how we went from life is pretty good to nothing will ever be okay in thirty seconds. How do we break free then from our self-manufactured upsets?
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