There’s an episode of The Office television show where two characters, Michael and Dwight, are following Michael’s GPS to get to a client, and the GPS tells them to turn right. Michael interprets the GPS as saying they need to turn immediately, whereas Dwight interprets the GPS as saying they need to turn in a short distance. Michael turns the car immediately, following what he thinks the GPS is telling him, and they end up driving straight into Lake Scranton.
We tend to listen to our feelings and thinking like they’re a GPS guidance system that points us in the correct direction to head. When we’re feeling anxious, we question ourselves or others. When we’re feeling angry, we get louder, more intense, and self-righteous. When we’re feeling ashamed, we cover up and hide. And so on.
When we or our kids are in actual danger, following the GPS system without question is definitely the right thing to do. It’s what gets us yelling to our kids to get out of the street, throwing our arms out to catch ourselves when we fall, and sending anger at someone to tell them something isn’t okay with us.
Mostly, though, just like Michael, we’re misinterpreting our GPS. Here are the two critical instructions regarding our internal GPS that we likely never received:
1. Our feelings almost always point to our thinking. When I’m frustrated with a colleague, it’s actually my thinking that’s causing the feeling of frustration, not my colleague. When I’m angry with my kids, it’s my thinking that’s causing the feeling of anger, not my kids. When I’m feeling anxious or afraid, it’s my thinking that’s causing the feeling of anxiety and fear, not the object of my fear itself.
So often we drive into our own Lake Scranton because we misinterpret our frustration, anger, fear, or other feelings as instructing us to act in a particular way, such as to gossip, yell, or cower. Yet those feelings are only indicator lights pointing us to our thinking itself and not to an external reality that we need to respond to with any particular action.
2. There’s nothing special about any particular thought. We are always thinking. We’ve even got thoughts about our thoughts. We’ve got thoughts that we can see and hear in our minds, and we’ve got thoughts that are so subtle they just seem like part of external reality itself. These two kinds of thinking are called conscious and nonconscious thinking.
But some thoughts seem sooooo real. She really is conniving and mean! He really doesn’t care about the extra work that makes for me! I'm a phony, and I'm clearly not ready for this!
Much of our thinking we so easily grab onto as fact, and some of our thinking we hang onto for dear life as if even questioning its validity would have us die.
No matter which thought it is, however, thought is usually an automatic interpretation. Each thought is a burst of electrochemical activity in our brain that looks interesting enough for us to hang on to for a bit. And so we stare at our thinking like Michael stared at his GPS screen, and like Michael, we miss what's actually happening.
Get thought as the automatic interpretation that it is, and it becomes less compelling. Get feelings as indicators on the GPS, and they become less compelling. In either case, try to relax and pay attention to what's actually happening before you react. After all, it's often more preferable to avoid the mess in the first place than it is to have to clean up after it happens.
What's the Lake Scranton you've driven into recently?
By the way, my workshop for adolescents and my workshop for adults are both beginning in less than two weeks! Consider joining me and sharing with someone who may be interested! In each workshop, we'll develop a deeper understanding of our internal GPS so that thoughts and feelings become the valuable, pleasurable, and miraculous assets they're meant to be.