Did you ever fail a test in school, even when you studied for weeks and knew the material cold and got plenty of sleep the night before and ate a good breakfast the morning of?
It might not have been a competence issue.
Leary’s groundbreaking research dubbed this the curse of the self. He explained that one of the reasons some students often perform poorly on tests is not because they’re stupid, but because they’re stressed. Rather than focusing single mindedly on the test questions, their minds are ﬁlled with this cacophony of irrelevant thoughts.
Some are about their future, some are about their parents being disappointed in them, some are about their own study habits. And the problem is, burdened with this excessive anxiety, it becomes hard to remember all the information they learned.
Hence, the poor grade.
We’ve all trapped ourselves in one of these doom loops before. It’s not fun.
Buddhists have a term for this pattern, it’s called the second arrow. It’s the unnecessary layer of suffering we place on top of the triggering event itself, which hurts us more than the original experience. We get ensnared in an infinite regression, unable to shake the overwhelming malaise that engulfs us.
The lesson is simple. We devote too much attention to ourselves. When we do, we leave little cognitive room for healthier, more productive mental processes. We drop the ball on habits like caring and soothing and being kind to ourselves.
Turns out, if we actually want to calm down and have a real shot a peace, then we have to concentrate on something, anything, other than our own anxious thoughts.
It’s one of the reasons mantras are so deeply calming. Because if we keep telling ourselves how overwhelmed we are, we prove ourselves right. That impairs our ability to function. But when we lovingly remind ourselves that there are no emergencies, that we are equal to this challenge, that we trust our resources, that we are enough, the dust can actually settle, and we can get on with the task at hand.
Camus once wrote that there are people and even cities who annoy you, overwhelm you, and lay bare your soul, an whose scorching contact, scandalous and delightful at the same time, clings to every pore of your body.
Which may be true, but it doesn’t mean we necessarily have be overwhelmed by them.
Pressure is a choice, and if we learn how to kindly and gently talk ourselves down off that cognitive ledge, then maybe we won’t be too overwhelmed to figure out what to do about our problem.
LET ME ASK YA THIS…
What will it take for you to feel less overwhelmed by emotional episodes that used to do you in?