Become the Programmer of Your Life by Reflecting on Your Stress Responses

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When we are born into this world and grow up, we cannot choose the environment much at all where we are brought up. From the environment where we grow up, we inherit, learn and copy models for responding to stress. Let’s call these learned models scripts from now on.

Script is essentially a sequence of thoughts, emotions and actions that happen automatically and effortlessly in mostly unconscious mind.

Stress should be defined as influence that alters an existent equilibrium. Therefore inherently stress is not good or bad, it’s merely a sign that something should be done and thus triggers thoughts and emotions in us.

So when we grow up, and a stressor enters our world we automatically take actions according to the learned scripts. If we get hungry, we may go to the fridge and grab whatever we would like to eat at the time.

Since life is complicated, these scripts that are drilled into unconscious mind save a lot of time and energy for us. Yet to live a happy and productive life, scripts we have inherited, learned and copied may not always be optimal. The reason is simply that we are the very first version of ourselves the moment we become aware of this. Before we are aware of this, we are a product, not a programmer.

When we become aware, we become the programmer of our lives. Conscious time and space for reflection is one way to be aware. I write journal every day and try to meditate as well. From these activities I write down all thoughts I can get.

Best of all habits is to have time during weekend for such reflection, because then we can contemplate more deeply on what actions we have taken and have they been optimal.

As an example today I had such a reflective day which I spent mostly in quiet long walk. It’s during this walk I happened to go upon sea where I rested a bit and start my mobile phone and entered upon the realm of social media where I saw an update by a friend.

My reaction then and there was rather negative since the emotions like  uncertainty, inadequacy and jealousy a rose. I caught myself a few minutes afterwards thinking, why would I choose an emotional response to that?

I had to accept that I had a script that lead to rather unskillful stress response. Now that I had become aware of such unskillful script and accepted its existence, I could do something about it. Since I knew, I could choose the way I respond to stressors, I began to think what would be mature way to respond to this? I quickly found more positive things such as happiness for others, belonging and acceptance.

Actually it is through this reflection that changed the whole lense I am looking now at the happiness of others that is shared often through social media. I have to admit my ignorance: it’s a bit scary that I haven’t noticed this earlier in myself.

During the walk, I also decided to start practicing and deepening my bond with the virtues even more. In 2013 I used the virtue list, an idea from Benjamin Franklin. Yet now in 2017 since I’ve put more thought into my values and virtues as well, I thought I need to start practicing these in the same way, one virtue each week. Humility is on that list too.

Remember as long as we live, we are never the final versions, we are always under development. Are you a code produced by the chance and the environment or are you the coder of your own life?

Why Do We Compare Ourselves with Others?

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Good thing about suffering is that is that it’s mostly subjective experience. This morning I noticed that I am again in the present state suffering quite a lot, because of unskillful habit of comparison.

So I decided to take a moment and reflect upon this question. Quickly I decided to take Google with me and I asked the question there. So then I found Quora reply by Awdhesh Singh to this same question.

I am not surprised that I found answers online, however the particular answer put me to work some more. What I love about world and net, is that our understanding is not perfect yet. We can construct upon it, and even challenge the knowledge we have and this is exactly what I did.

I think this kind of positive constructive dialogue is way ahead. So instead of accepting wholly the original reply, I began to break it down, reflect and comment upon it.

Awdhesh begins by writing that “We have a natural desire” and contradicts this in the next sentence with “We are not born with the desire of comparison.”

In life often many things can be true at the same time. I considered here the possibility as well. However, after reading through it several times and reflecting these statements to all my previous knowledge, I would argue that the first statement is wrong. We do not have natural desire to compare, instead we have a habitual desire like he mentions in the second paragraph. Mostly my argument would be founded to I’ve learned in the Charles Duhigg’s Power of Habits and Gretchen Ruben’s books.

In third paragraph he mentions a brilliant keyword “believing.”

“However, slowly we were told that we must be better than others. This starts happening since a child goes to the school. You are constantly told to get the top rank in the class or stand among the top. If you play a game, you must play to win and be the best player. If you get a lower rank, you are shamed and even humiliated. Gradually, we start believing that in order to be happy and make others happy, we must be better than others. You must work harder to be better than others by any means.”

This was a breakthrough for me personally, because I am fascinated by habit and belief formation. As I mentioned earlier the Power of Habits book, that habits have three elements: cue, routine and reward.

When I began to reflect this question “Why do we compare ourselves with others?” in the habit context, I see that these three elements are in place:

  • Cue, for example work place results or in games the scoreboard. In life we have all kinds of scoreboards as well such as status symbols, clothes etc. All of these are triggers for the habit routine.
  • Routine, “how well others are doing vs. I am…”. Personally I noticed that the routine itself is deeply rooted in our identity and memory, what we have done, who we are now, who we are striving to be…
  • Reward: at simplest forms it is the feeling of momentarily gratification of being better. However when I started to probe deeper I noticed that for me it is linked with a belief of being worthy as well. Being good, means being loved, means attention is the currency of love. Belief that the better we are, the more we are loved.

From here we get to the belief levels: beliefs what we focus the most are the strongest. I.e. this belief that the better we the more love we deserve is not necessarily the best belief to hold. In the end, we want to be loved, we want attention. Surely at the top we get attention, however what kind of attention it is we so much desire?

Also aren’t we worthy of the kind of attention already as we are? I think we are. Our own beliefs just might contradict each other and if we end up thinking that we are worthy only when we are better than everyone else, we might not end up so well.

Be careful on which kinds of beliefs you decide to focus on. The reason why we compare ourselves to each other is a result of a belief and habit. Habits cannot be simply discarded as Awdhesh mentioned, yet like Charles Duhigg points out in Power of Habit, habits can be transformed. Awdhesh suggests some positive practices such as Count Your Blessings, Learn from Others, Respect Good Qualities which are actions in the right directions.

However, personally I do not feel like these are merely enough. I notice that the process needs to begin much earlier by being mindful of cue-routine-reward situations and the beliefs we operate on. Then we need to start working towards transforming the unwanted patterns into more healthy and helpful ones.

Be You With Your Strengths

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The lesson that has taken me to about thirty years to internalize has been the “it’s okay to be me.”

My unique tendencies, such as introversion, combined with my keen curiousness towards learning about a bit about everything had me to think that such preferences are “too out of the normal.”

Yet what is normal anyway? Watching TV? Parties?

As I’ve grown older I’ve bit by bit understood to embrace these tendencies, as they’ve made me wiser in the process.

Normal, or ordinary people do not put much effort to their personal growth at all. They say they do not have “time to read”, or even “interest.”

Yet in the world, there is a lot of people who are interested in such intellectual pursuits and use all their time and energy very carefully around both learning and action. Gradually as I’ve learned that it’s these people that are far more interesting to me in any way, that my life has been filled more with meaning and purpose.

A breakthrough for me has been to understand what thoughts or feelings to follow, and what not. Most of the thoughts and feelings that are really just about instant gratification, I should not relate much with. This reflects very well what majority of people do. Therefore it makes it very challenging to resist desserts, or caffeine for example. Following these thoughts is not therefore very advantageous for me, therefore this is something I would rather be not, even though these thoughts might be once in a while in my head.

The thoughts and feelings about delayed gratification might sometimes be almost as strong as the impulses about instant gratification. Often these are battling against the consensus of the group for example, even in mundane situations such as “should we take a stairs or the elevator” – for example. In these cases I would feel inclined to take the stairs (in Finland there is not many tall buildings ) to keep up my daily step goals and above all my health.

Socially explaining some of these inclinations has been the awkward part for me. This is because the delayed gratification feelings might be and feel obvious to me, yet verbalizing them might take time and I might not even specifically remember how was it. I would need to consult some sort of memory aid and all of the sudden the situation has gone past already. So what has been in the background has been that I’ve felt the desire to do the right things, yet haven’t felt secure to do so previously in my life. Presently I don’t feel such pressures as I’ve learned to handle the social situations.

In my case the major block to utilize my strengths has been mainly psychological inability to articulate and then go to a feeling of shame instead of some more productive feeling. Basis of overcoming these disadvantageous moments that I’ve had has been the self-acceptance thought.

I wish to see the strengths and above all the potential in everyone, so therefore I hope you can learn something from this example.

Challenge Yourself and Survive

Challenging yourself is difficult without the aid of others. Today as I walked 23k steps with little sleep and as a background having had another 20k steps plus standing, jumping and partying at a concert.

When I was walking today I recalled that I probably hadn’t had so tiring feeling in my feet since I was in the army.


Conclusion: we want to stay in the comfort zone so bad.


I remember when we were marching, the lieutenants in army used to come up every once in a while and ask how we are feeling. Of course they were observing as well our both physical and mental condition. I was about twenty years old then. For myself I didn’t have such capacity, I was too impatient.

In the present moment I have got a bit further because I am able to observe objectively my thoughts and emotions as well to have kind attitude towards both skillful and unskillful thoughts and emotions.


The time between these two points is ten years.


To attempt to describe life back and now, it seems I am growing more concussions with both experience and practice.


The big learning thought: it’s hard to challenge oneself too much as long as it is if its progressive and there is sufficient rest and knowledge of imagined limits. 

Become the Master of Your Thoughts, Emotions and Feelings  

 

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You are not your thoughts and emotions. Phrase, actually for me a mantra that I learned from Jari Sarasvuo.

Thoughts and emotions are not us. If we are the observer on the river, then the thoughts and the emotions are the water and everything that goes down with the river.

When things go better, I remember this.

When things start to get worse, I’ve forgotten this. I get tricked by my emotions and thoughts to believe they are actually me. Therefore I wrote, so that I might remember. I write to remind myself and others.

Our life becomes the reflection of those feelings and emotions that we take refuge in when we are sensing a challenge arising.

As observer of the river, we may choose the way we respond to these thoughts and emotions. When a fish jumps, what do you do?

What about when you see a black tentacle monster beneath the water surface glaring you with gleaming eyes? Is it courage? Curiosity? Compassion? Or perhaps it is cowardice?

Personally my habit in such strange situation would be probably cowardice. It’s not my desired habit, therefore I would like to transform it into something mix of courage, caution, curiosity and compassion.

More than our thoughts and emotions, we are collection of the habits by which we react to feelings. In Power of Habits book, there was a case about a man who had lost his memory, yet his habits did remain.

Winston Churchill said that the primary virtue in life is the courage, because it’s prerequisite for any action. I happen to agree on this one.

About ten years ago I learned from Steve Pavlina’s blog that the courage is like a muscle. Since then my life has been transformed. However, somewhere in between, I’ve stopped training my courage like at my greatest moments I’ve been: consciously and proactively.

So I’ve recognized at least one habit response to an emotion and it is cowardice. I would like a better habit and that would be courage.

In the same way I learned to observe other thoughts and feelings too. In case of feelings, what kind of thoughts precede? In case of thoughts, what kind of feelings or emotions follow? Becoming aware of the stream, makes you master of the stream.

Practice every day until the behavior is your nature.

Why Do You Do What You Do?

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Yesterday evening I decided to clarify my vision after a long time and it was about time, because in fact I just had a starting point, not really a clear vision. Now I’ve a bit clearer picture, yet it could use more details and all the nice things.

Even more so was alarming that today I caught myself asking “why do I need to buy apartment again?”

For me the pressure to get my own place again stems from the need to continue my life after breakup.

This time I decided to think “what I am doing again” and “why.”  I tried to use the five why’s, which is great, however I noticed it was not in this case a perfect. Still using the questions and Socratic method got me quite far and I am rather satisfied with it.

So now, I began to get a bigger picture: next move depends on what I want to do as well as the why. Positive side of the pressure to do something is the freedom to figure out creative solutions.

From the birds eye perspective, the short term pain is acceptable, because I know that the long term why is being fulfilled.

So perhaps this questioning exercise of asking why do you do what you want to do is something you might wanna try next time you feel under pressure or confused.

Only Others Can See What You Need to Level Up

Vuorikiipeilijä, Kiivetä, Kiipeilylajeista At times there is a need to level up. Sometimes, you need a special person to point that out, to give the spark for just that.

Leveling up in life happens in bursts. Like a bonfire, you need something to burn first. For me and in my life, I’ve probably collected lots of stuff to burn. Yet what was missing the spark. Therefore I am extremely grateful to Stephanie who made this possible for me at this point in life to recognize such an need which I was completely unaware of.

Stephanie pointed out to me, that I could use some confidence. As intuitive and reflective person, I do pickup on this kind of meaningful feedback keenly and you could say that through the two days I vigorously reflected my thoughts to journal.

As a conclusion I understood human needs a bit better: Only someone else can give you what you need, and sometimes it’s tiny and meaningful hints like these that change the whole game. My horizons have broadened since then, actually proper metaphor would be that my eyes have been opened again after two years of walking blind (and of course occasionally walking to the right direction).

Now I’ve understood that in order to keep my courage at a high level, I need to constantly keep challenging myself. Therefore I happened to combine a want with a challenge: now I’ve a one way ticket to Paris, where my first plan is to see the Coldplay concert. This is a perfect opportunity for me to see how far I can go and with how little.

Life is about constant prioritization of multiple goals at the same time and to make that happen requires handling and clearing progressively harder challenges. I haven’t had enough progression lately on meaningful goals lately, so thanks to the feedback I’ve understood to fix that. It’s time to challenge myself and level up, in order to help others grow more (by the way this is the definition of love by Dr. Scott M. Peck as I mentioned in previous article).

Thank you Stephanie!

 

Janne

P.s. On a bigger scale, as an inspiration I remembered today that Elon Musk had a challenge to live with less than a dollar a day. Perhaps that could be something to try in a year. Just to see if I can do it of course.

Three Things That Make Healthy Opportunism Happen

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Few days ago I wrote about Healthy Opportunism, which was a rather short story. However, now to open up a bit more the healthy side of the opportunism.

First of all, people who prepare to be in the moment; put a lot of effort to be there. Already that effort makes a huge difference between people.

By a lot of effort I mean things like:

  • Ability to seriously delay gratification
  • Proactively creating chances for tomorrow
  • Mindfulness, the ability to be present and skillfully master oneself in order to be present

When these kind of things are in check, we can start to begin to discuss about healthy opportunism. It’s about having and following a plan, but being able to prepare to toss the plan away when even a better chance happens to come across.

It’s like pursuing a goal, yet not getting fixated upon the goal, because in the end is not the goal we seek, but something in the direction of the goal, which may be even a greater summit we couldn’t see before.

Everything We Need is in the Moment

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All words, sentences seem to be in way only partial truths. Therefore if we want to speak only the truth we would be quiet most of the time.

Despite their imperfections phrases are useful.

Everything we need is in the moment. More precisely everything we have is in the moment, therefore we should accept and embrace it. If we can do that, we feel happiness. Happiness is a skillset to accept the present, love yourself love the conditions that life has set upon you.

Happiness attracts happiness. To that which we focus, we get more of.

Acceptance leads to taking responsibility, responsibility leads to mastery. Mastery is unique human trait that makes life feel fulfilling, especially if combined with autonomy and purpose. Together these three unleash intrinsic motivation that allow us to become the masters of the moments. We rise beyond of expectations, time and mundane needs. We are able to satisfy needs at the highest of levels.


For further reading try the Drive by Daniel Pink, Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor or Happiness Equation by Neil Pasricha.

How to Recognize a Habit?

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Well today I had almost moment with a customer, where we ended up taking the stairs instead of the usual elevator. This was due to my habit of taking the stairs and in this case I followed up through with it because this habit is based so strongly to the good intentions that it felt natural. In this case it is the best for all as well.

Habit is when you catch yourself doing something automatically and effortlessly without actually even thinking about it.

What I understand, habits form slowly and surely. It’s not that they become so automatic in days, weeks or even months. It’s more like a long game. When you catch yourself by a surprise, then you have succeeded.