The Greek philosopher Epictetus had said: "People are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them." Truly, what we think is not always how things are. If we keep this in mind, life may be a lot easier.
Ramesh (name changed), a 42- year- old businessman, came for therapy because he would feel low most of the time and was unable to focus at work. In his second therapy session he revealed having a strained relationship with his father.
The following conversation between Ramesh (R) and the therapist (T) was a part of his third therapy session.
R: As I am talking about my father I feel so angry, my whole body is shivering and my heart is racing.
R: He always picks on me. For him I am not good enough. He always favours my brother.
T: Okay. And how do you know that? R: Every time my brother faces a crisis, my father asks me to help him.
At the end I don't even receive a word of appreciation. He is always partial to my brother even though it's my hard work that has turned our family business around. The whole family is benefitting from it but he never acknowledges it.
T: So, you are saying that you want appreciation from your father for your achievements?
R: Exactly! I have done so much, but it's never enough!
T: So, could it be possible that his favouritism towards your brother is actually coming from the knowledge that you are stronger and you don't need his support?
R: He says that!
T: Well, is it possible that every time he has been partial to your brother he was actually complimenting you silently on your strength, as you don't need him to be partial to you?
R: (After a long pause) I think it is possible to look at it that way.
T:Then can you consider the possibility that by not acknowledging you, your father was actually acknowledging you? R: Wow! I never thought of it that way! T: How do you feel now?
R: When I look at it this way, my anger is gone. I feel calm and can actually think of him without the bitterness.
This is one example of how we create our own realities based on how we interpret a certain thing. In this case, Ramesh thought he was the unfavoured son and not good enough for his father, as his father didn't verbalise any appreciation. But the fact was that his father trusted Ramesh's ability to handle a crisis and did tell him that he was strong, that he didn't need his support.
When Ramesh opened up to the alternative perspective that his father's way of appreciating was different from what he expected, his feelings towards his father changed.
Assuming, interpreting and drawing our own conclusions is important to our existence and daily life. But not all our impressions and inferences are absolutely correct. To stay happy one often needs to explore one's beliefs and assumptions and, if need be, change them. Here are some tips... Check your interpretation: Could there be another explanation? For example, is it possible that my friend was really busy when he said ' will talk later' and hung up, and my interpretation ' he is avoiding me' is actually not true? Could I be wrong to assume that my sister- in- law was ' shutting me out' just because she was quiet lately? Maybe she was distracted about something.
Remember these are subjective conclusions, not tested facts.
Evaluate your ' obvious' interpretations and be open to discard them if needed.
Challenge your all- or- none thought: We have a tendency to generalise, but life isn't about absolutes. One fight with your boyfriend or one rejected proposal does not mean ' nobody loves me'. Just the previous week your neighbour baked a cake for your birthday. Similarly, one failure doesn't mean ' I am a failure'. Question yourself: Check if your beliefs are helping you be happy, strong and empowered, or sad and weak. It's all right to change your earlier decisions, strategies and ' way of dealing' with something if they are not working for you anymore. Yesterday's smart approach can turn into today's self- defeating pattern. Be flexible to let go of your old interpretations and perspectives.
Dr Sangbarta Chattopadhyay and Dr Namita Bhuta are medical practitioners, psychotherapists and life coaches.