View this post on Instagram
I deal in conflict.
I often see people when they are at their worst. When they are full of anger, blame, and judgment for another person or company whom they believe owes them something, or whom they believe they owe nothing to.
I am what is called a “civil trial lawyer,” which means that I work with people and companies who are fighting over property, money, or both. It’s a tough job that I’m not sure I would choose again.
If I had known what it was really like, that is.
But there are benefits.
One benefit that 30 years of this work has brought me is the opportunity to observe people when they are suffering. In most cases, the suffering is financial, emotional, or both. I get to talk to them in depth about their suffering. What happened. What beliefs they have about what happened. What they want to happen next. What I can do to help them feel better.
As their lawyer, people tell me things they wouldn’t tell anyone else. Their innermost hopes and dreams. Their greatest fears. Their darkest secrets. So, I get to see firsthand the beliefs and decisions that have led them to the comfy sofa in my office.
After many years of listening to my clients’ stories, I started to notice a pattern to suffering. A “how” to the creation of suffering, not merely a “why.” Noticing this has helped me greatly with my own suffering.
This pattern always follows four steps, namely:
1. An Event. Something that happens in our lives. Events are always neutral. They only have the meaning that we give them. Think of the worst thing to ever happen. It’s just an event until you get to step two.
2. A Story. We create a story about the event. Stories can be harmless, but the stories that lead to suffering are always the same—that someone, or something, should be different. But even that doesn’t become a problem until you get to step three.
3. A Belief. We believe the story we created—that someone or something should be different. This is an important step because we don’t always believe the stories we hear from others, or the stories that we have created about events. But sometimes we do. And when we believe the story that someone or something should be different than it is, we find ourselves at step four.
4. Suffering. We suffer because we have created a story about an event that someone or something should be different, and we believe that story. This creates tension between what is and what we believe should be—between what is actually true and what we believe should be true. This tension shows up in our body in ways that are not healthy for us and can lead to symptoms and even disease.
In my experience, all suffering that isn’t physical pain, such as a broken arm or an earache, can be broken down into these four steps.
Whaaaaat?? This can’t be right.
Before I saw it for myself, I wouldn’t have believed it either. I believed there were only two steps to suffering: the event and the suffering that results from the event. As if my suffering were automatically caused by other people or events, and I had no control over it. I did not see that I had a role in my own suffering.
Here’s an example. When I first started to notice this pattern, the person I was married to at the time would regularly say rude and sometimes even hateful things to me when she was angry, which unfortunately was a lot of the time. Initially, I got upset when she did this and believed that she was responsible for how badly I felt. How she made me feel. Worse, I wanted—no, needed—an apology before I would feel better, which not only put her in charge of how I felt, but it also put her in charge of how long I continued to feel that way. I could only see these two steps: her actions and my suffering.
Once I started to see that there were actually four steps, however, I saw that there were two things that I was doing between her actions and my feeling bad, namely creating, and then believing stories that “she shouldn’t get so angry,” or “she shouldn’t treat me like that,” or “she should apologize.”
While I could imagine taking a poll and finding people who agreed with my stories that she should be different, that wasn’t the point. The point was that I was the one deciding that she should be different, and I was the one believing that, so I was the one responsible for how I felt as a result.
So how did seeing this help me?
To put it simply, knowing that I was the only one responsible for how I felt was liberating. I was not a victim. I was making choices that led to my suffering, and I could start making different ones. Better yet, I could make those choices from a place of neutrality rather than a place of reaction to someone else’s choices. Some would call this “taking my power back” because I had given this person power—not only over how I felt, but also over how long I felt that way, and I could stop doing that.
I could start being the one in charge of how I felt, no longer a leaf at the mercy of the wind.
What a concept.
But I’m getting ahead of myself here because ultimately it came down to three things that I had to do in order to take back my power and take charge of how I felt:
1. Awareness. If I notice that I am upset, I ask myself, “What story am I believing right now?” Sometimes this takes sitting for a moment with the question before the answer comes. I look for the story in the “why”—as in “why am I upset?” When asked “why,” our minds will immediately jump in with the story. This is half the battle—seeing that there is a story that someone or something should be different and that I am the one believing it and it is my belief in the story that is creating my suffering. Sometimes I ask a follow-up question, “If I didn’t believe this story, how would I feel?” If the answer is “better,” then I know I am on the right track.
2. Acceptance. Once I am aware that I am believing a story that someone should be different than they actually are, or something should be different than it actually is, then I can just stop believing it. Instead, I can start to see people and things as they really are, rather than through the lens of my stories about who or what they should be. I can let go of all that tension in my body that I create in wanting things to be different than they are. I can start seeing the truth.
3. New Choices. Once I start seeing people and things for who or what they actually are, rather than who or what I think they “should” be, then I can make new choices from a place of neutrality, rather than a place of reactivity. I can decide—is this someone I want to spend my time with? Is this a company I want to work for? Is this shiny object really something I need?
By doing these three things, I was able to stop believing the stories that were creating suffering for me, and in turn eliminate some of the obstacles I had created to my happiness. So instead of my happiness depending upon the behavior of the person I was married to at the time, I could be happy irrespective of how she behaved. I was able to make new choices from a place of neutrality. And in case you are wondering, yes, I ultimately decided that she was not someone I wanted to spend my time with.
Cue the promo
When I was suffering and ready for a change, working through these three steps was extremely helpful to me, and I encourage anyone who is suffering to try them out. Patience with ourselves is key, as becoming aware of our stories does not occur overnight. We can make steady progress if every time we find ourselves upset or in reaction, we can ask, “What story am I believing right now?” and “How would I feel if I didn’t believe that story?”
The results will speak for themselves.