Driving home through the country the other day, I noticed that one of my tires was low in air. So I stopped at a gas station and pulled up to their air pump. Unlike most air pumps, this one required coins.
“Seventy-five cents,” I said to the passengers in the car.
We scraped together seventy-five cents and then drove off with our tires filled. It wasn’t until about ten minutes later that I laughed out loud and said: “Do you all think we’ve been totally ripped off? I mean, seventy-five cents? For some air? We could have gotten really upset about that, you know. And then we could have gotten upset that we got upset!”
Before long, we were discussing how even the smallest events in one’s life can turn into major emotional catastrophes. Sometimes we can get really worked up over the tiniest things.
Now that’s where it gets interesting. Consider this statement:
Seemingly insignificant events can often be more emotionally damaging than real tragedies.
What I mean is that we usually feel natural levels of emotion regarding tragedies, but the relationship we’ve created with ‘insignificant events’ in our lives often creates a potentially hazardous emotional mindset.
Have you ever gotten worked up about money, even when you still have a roof over your head, plenty of food in the fridge, and you haven’t actually been late on paying a bill? Have you ever gotten frustrated because you lost your keys or misplaced your jacket? Perhaps you’ve forgotten someone’s name, dropped your purse, or gotten into a minor fender-bender and felt yourself get really steamed.
In these moments, we find ourselves upset all out of proportion to the significance of the event.
We might call this ‘crying over spilt milk’. The message we’re receiving when we hear that statement, or read the paragraphs above, is this:
There are some things – true tragedies like a family member dying or getting cancer – that are alright to get upset about. But there are many other things that should make us laugh rather than cry – like spilling a glass of milk.
This seems like a fairly rational statement. If a friend calls us up because their grandfather died, we immediately comfort them. But if a friend gets totally upset because they dropped their wallet, we aren’t going to feel much compassion. In fact, we’ll probably think that they need to see a psychologist.
Something Sinister Here
What we’re failing to see is that there is something sinister at work here. Indeed, when we criticize a friend for crying over spilt milk, we’re actually creating the situation we’re condemning. To understand this, take a look at the covert message being communicated in the saying ‘crying over spilt milk’.
The message is this: It’s alright to get emotional over some things, but not others. In other words, our culture sanctions feeling emotional about some things, but not others. And never does our culture clearly define what is alright to get emotional about, and what isn’t.
The result is that we create boundaries around our emotions. We fully believe that it’s okay to get upset about ‘big things’, but not about ‘little things’. The result? An almost constant state of emotional repression.
Imagine trying to get through a day when you were told that you could not be emotionally attached to 95% of the events that transpired. Failure to comply means that your friends will think you’re weak or emotionally damaged, and you will consider yourself an emotional failure.
This is not a fantasy. It’s what we’re taught as ‘normal’. So we move through our day (and every day has things that go right, and things that go wrong), and we try very hard not to get emotional over spilt milk. What we’ve created is a perpetual state of resistance – It’s silly to get emotional over little stuff – so we put up our emotional boundaries and try to be as emotionally placid as possible.
Now, one of the basic rules we should all learn in Emotions 101 class is that the ‘negative emotions’ of frustration, stress, and despair are not really emotions at all – they’re what happens when we resist emotions. Our resistance is a powerful force of creation.
So what’s really happening when we tell ourselves that we shouldn’t cry over spilt milk? We’re setting up a resistance-based situation that is sure to create negative emotions.
In other words, we probably wouldn’t get upset about spilt milk if we allowed ourselves to be momentarily annoyed at the spill. But because we think it’s silly to get upset over such a thing, we immediately chastise ourselves for feeling annoyed, which initiates a cascade of negative self-talk and emotional response. Pretty soon, we can be really upset.
Did you notice in the first section of this article how I used words such as ‘minor’, ‘small’, or ‘tiny’? When we characterize life events in such a way, we set up the foundation for believing that these events aren’t worth an emotional response. As usual, we’re creating our own problems by using an unexamined model of the world. We believe that it’s silly to get upset over little things, but it’s that very belief that allows us to get upset in the first place! We’re trapped in our own culturally- and self-created circle.
Dancing with Life
When we examine our judging mind, we will notice that judgment isn’t usually necessary for most life events. We’re perfectly able, as human beings, to experience an event and experience the emotions that flavor it. Indeed, this is what makes life so interesting. We can move from event to event, and we can also dance with those events, so that the events seem to evoke emotions, thoughts, or ideas.
But when we impose limits on our dance, our dance becomes rigid and stiff. Instead of spilling our milk, feeling a bit of annoyance, and experiencing that event as a swirl and dip with our dancing partner, we stiffen up, and when our partner dips, we’re likely to stumble or fall to the ground.
The dance is ruined in resistance. This sort of resistance to everyday experience does us no good whatsoever. The only thing it accomplishes is to create frustration, stress, and despair in our lives.
Taking a clear look at our resistance to certain aspects of life can be one of the most liberating things we ever do. All it requires is some clear observation of how our mind frames our experience. Right now, our minds are running on automatic, framing our experience via methods and assumptions that many of us have never examined.
Next time you get upset over something ‘small’, take a look at what’s unfolding. See if you can find your resistance, observe it, and see what happens from there.
You just might find yourself dancing.