Gratitude, Choice, and the "Why Did
This Happen to Me?" Syndrome
By Gabriella Kortsch, Ph.D.
An Olympic contender slips just before the finish line and loses the single most important race of his life. A youngster who has made it through countless spelling bees, makes a careless mistake in the second last competition, and so doesn't have a chance at winning the state championship. A woman who has spent the past six years hoping against hope that the man she is seeing will finally decide to commit to her, is painfully dumped by him in full view of their mutual friends and acquaintances. A man's wife cheats on him...not once, but four times! Your business partner walks off leaving half a million euros in debt. You are diagnosed with heart problems just when you thought your life was pulling together and you would be able to enjoy the retirement years in peace and joy. Cancer strikes, death strikes, tragedy strikes, and it makes most of us ask this: "Why me?"
The Unfairness of Life
Somehow it seems so unfair, so unjust, destiny could have spared me this one... Why did this have to happen to me. If only... and on and on. My life was going so well, it seemed - you say to yourself - until this happened. Because of this, everything else is no longer working, or is put on a back burner, until this is solved... if it ever gets solved.
Maybe other people don't look after themselves, they eat junk food, and smoke and drink, so they deserve to get sick, but not me... I eat healthy food... maybe other people don't train for a competition, so they don't deserve to win, but I work out every day... maybe other people don't make a budget and watch expenditures, so if they have a financial disaster, it's their own fault, but not me... I control all of that very well... maybe other people don't treat their spouse well, and so they deserve to be betrayed, but not me, I'm a good person... and on it goes.
In this fashion we justify to ourselves how unfair it is that calamity or tragedy stuck us, and that we absolutely do not deserve it. We rail against the event and the unforeseeable changes it has necessarily wrought in our lives. We concentrate on all the negative aspects of it...and certainly, if you have received a diagnosis of cancer, or lost your spouse, or fortune, or job, it would be hard to find something positive to say about it.
And yet... isn't it true that we always have a choice? (Also see my February 2006 Newsletter: Making Choices: Taking Responsibility For Our Lives).
It Doesn't Have to be This Way
My practice brings me in touch with many people telling me about something terrible in their lives. Their stories are legitimately filled with pain, sorrow, desperation, anger, guilt, resentment, jealousy, loss, disillusion, and fear. My heart goes out to them... not so much because of the content of their stories, but because they don't have to feel this way, and learning and understanding the truth of that statement is frequently one of the hardest things I ask my clients to do. But once they grasp it, life becomes infinitely easier. So what is the alternative to feeling this way, to having this wrenching pain in your life?
How To Go About Having a Choice
When you are filled with pain or any of those other dreadful emotions referred to in the last paragraph, you are obviously feeling miserable, wishing things were different, bemoaning your fate, or trying desperately to figure the way out of the situation. Now imagine just for an instant that you could fill your mind with other thoughts. Not because you "pretend" to yourself that the hard thoughts are no longer there, and not because you "control" the hard thoughts or difficult feelings, and not because you "suppress" the hard thoughts, or anything along those lines. Quite the contrary. You would fill your mind with other thoughts not because you would have been able to eradicate these hard thoughts, but because you choose to think other thoughts.
Choose To Think Other Thoughts
What, you say? Choose to think other thoughts? How can I choose? I have to think these thoughts if I have any of these problems, because I have to try to resolve them, or get over them. I have no choice in the matter until the problem is gone.
In order to think other thoughts, you need to make room in your mind to do so. Therefore, there is less room or no room to think the hard thoughts. If you can get your mind around that concept, you will have taken the first step.
Next, consider the fact that if you want to resolve the problem, you probably have already done all that you can to do so...at least for today. Therefore, continuing to think about it serves no purpose. It might, as a matter of fact, be considered a waste of time. A waste of valuable time that you could be using to choose to make your day good, joyous, and filled with satisfaction.
The Comfort of Wallowing in the Familiarity of Our Pain
Oh no, you say. That is impossible. I have this huge problem. I have this terrible emotional pain. I can't be joyous... do you see how your thoughts are already diverging into the territory of I must cling to my pain? Clinging to the pain sometimes, even when 20 years have passed since the painful thing took place, define the individual, and because of that, the individual feels the need to hang on to that definition. Who would they be without this pain? Eckhard Tolle ("The Power of Now") refers to this as the pain body, a place where we like to wallow, because we feel so comfortable there, because we have been there so often before. Leaving there, choosing to go elsewhere, is actually harder, at least at the beginning, because it implies stepping out of our comfort zone, out of that place where we feel secure, in order to cross a threshold into new areas of living where we totally change our current status quo.
That's crazy, you say. I would never wallow in my pain, rather than go where I can be free of it. I'm not a masochist. I don't like pain and worry. Chris Griscom ("The Healing of Emotions") calls this the emotional body, a part of us that is so stuck in the place in which it has experienced the most difficult and painful feelings, that we have an extraordinarily difficult time cleaning it up, in other words, getting out of it. Clearly, this pain also causes much stress. Dr. David Servan-Schreiber ("Healing Without Freud or Prozac") states that "in terms of mortality, stress poses a more serious risk factor than tobacco".
Out of the Comfort Zone and into New Territory
OK. So here you have your thoughts of pain and worry on the one hand, and the choice of going elsewhere in your thoughts on the other hand. By taking this choice, you walk into new territory. You walk into a place you have never been before, because if your reactions have sometimes been the ones I have described thus far in this article, then you have possibly never deliberately chosen to go towards more joyous thoughts. So give it a try. What do you have to lose?
Now here comes the tricky part. The new thoughts that you choose must mean something to you. Just thinking about a new car you might like to have, or a movie that you saw last night, will probably not do it. A very useful thing to turn your thoughts towards is something that has meaning in your life, or something that gives your life meaning, which is independent of other people or external circumstances for its fulfillment, i.e., essentially it depends on you. Let's say, for example, that you are working on changing careers, and that you can imagine that your new career (that's why you chose it) will give you enormous satisfaction. (See also my article: Finding a Meaning For Your Life). So think about that. Think about how it will feel when you have accomplished that. Imagine it in all its facets. Fill your mind with the joy and satisfaction you will feel when that is a reality. Imagine it as if it already existed.
Another new direction you might take with your thoughts, is to make a short list of everything you are grateful for... the by now famous "Gratitude Journal", the one element, that according to multiple ivy-league happiness research, most contributes to long-lasting and higher indices of happiness in individuals. What do you have to be grateful for when you are in a "bad place" in your life? Much. You may have your health. If not, you may have your family. If not, you may have wonderful friends. Your intelligence, your inner beauty, your sense of humor, your fearlessness, your dog, your home, your sparkling eyes, etc. Choosing to think about these things is a sure-fire way of making yourself feel better.
You might also think about the fact that by learning to do this, by learning to choose your thoughts, not just now, but consistently, all throughout your day, every day, your life will begin to have a chance to be filled with joy at will, and not as a consequence of circumstances; that your life will have a chance to be structured in ways that give you meaning and fulfillment because you are working on dealing with those parts of yourself that keep you miserable by choosing thoughts that take you in other directions. Would that not be worth gold? Would that not give you a major degree of freedom from your pain? Would it not be worth your while to just give it a try? And think about this: your happiness, or your state of being content and satisfied would no longer depend on external circumstances, but on your inner decision to choose your thoughts, in order to maintain that inner balance.