Getting Beyond Negativity
A CALM MO approach to psychological mindfulness.
Posted Jan 31, 2018
Reacting negatively to negative feelings creates a vicious loop where we feel bad about feeling bad, leaving us stuck in a cycle of negativity. This cycle has trapped many people. But it is possible to break it by cultivating a different attitude. First, though, a story involving negative feelings.
One of my more painful memories in high school occurred when I was in 10th grade. I had a fairly active libido and a strong desire to date. I also had a somewhat inflated sense of myself and did not realize where I was in the high school hierarchy. My ignorance resulted in me asking out a very attractive cheerleader, and paying the price accordingly. During the morning break between classes, I went up to her and handed her a gift bag with a rose and a note inviting her to dinner. I said I would check back in with her. Then, two hours later at lunch, I arrived at the table where I normally sit. But I got there earlier than my friends, so I was alone at the table. Then I looked up and saw the cheerleader and her friends at the table across from me. And, lo and behold, what was in the center of them? My note and rose. And they were giggling and pointing at me, as I sat in what felt like the loneliest place in the world.
Needless to say, it was brutal, and I remember it to this day because it was seared into my consciousness. Feelings of embarrassment, rejection, humiliation, self-doubt, and anger all were present in my primary mind. And we can imagine I also had lots of negative reactions to these negative feelings. There was a strong push to punish self (e.g., “I am such a loser”), to punish others (e.g., “They are being so mean to me, I hate them”), and motives get these feelings off the stage of one’s consciousness (e.g., “I never want to think of this moment again”).
The more negatively I reacted to my negative feelings, the greater the likelihood I would be starting to set the stage for a neurotic pattern. Imagine, for example, if I hated the feelings and the event so much that I hated myself for causing them. Or if I hated the girls with thoughts like, “All girls manipulate you,” or “People love causing others pain.” Both of these lines of thought are understandable negative reactions to the negative feelings. However, they are deeply problematic because they trap me in a negative view of the world, and if I had invested strongly in either line thinking, I would have likely been trapped into a neurotic cycle.
This blog lays out how to foster a different kind of mental attitude about negative feelings. Instead of negative reactions that are blaming, critical, controlling and designed to foster escape from the negative feelings, a different attitude is needed. I like to encapsulate it in the acronym C.A.L.M. M.O.
Before diving into this, it is important to be clear that it makes sense to have negative reactions to negative feelings. Negative feelings suck, and thus it is only natural to want to avoid them. Second, negative feelings CAN indeed cause problems. They orient us to act, often in very impulsive and problematic ways. And many people find themselves becoming completely flooded by feelings. Running out of the room and crying like a baby is rarely advisable, and so a deliberative reaction that tries to rein in primary reactions often makes sense. C.A.L.M. M.O. takes this issue into account, as we will see.
Defining C.A.L.M. M.O.
The idea here is that instead of reacting negatively to our negative feelings, we can learn to cultivate a different attitude in the deliberative mind. The “M.O.” in C.A.L.M. MO stands for “Meta-cognitive Observer”. It means adopting a deliberative, reflective, responsive (versus reactive), observing position on one’s mind. Take a minute and think about someone you know who went through a stressful event. As you recreate the scene, allow yourself to see in your mind’s eye what was going through their mind. As you do, you are getting a feel for this stance. Now, imagine turning that lens of understanding to yourself. When you think about yourself as the object of your understanding, you are adopting a stance of a “meta-observer” that is looking at your own self and everything that is going on. Imagine yourself seeing the feelings you have and the rush of thoughts that follow and the situation you are in and your history that led up to it and other key people involved. It is “participant/observer stance” that is involved in the flow, but also can step outside the flow and see them from a bit of a distance and not be all the feelings that are flowing through the stream.
Learning to take this meta-cognitive stance takes practice. It is not something folks can just do as soon as they hear about it. But, if guided, many folks can learn to do it, and learn to do it better and better. The fact that it takes practice gives rise to the second meaning of “M.O.,” which is “Modus Operandi.” This meaning of M.O. refers to your habits of acting or typical mode of being. The point here is that you want to make this capacity a part of your normal way of being. To do that, you need to practice an “M.O.” stance, so that it becomes easier and easier to achieve — because you will need to be able to activate it in the moment of distress. That is, when your primary process mind or your self-critical mind is strongest, which will make it hard to shift perspective. But, all meaningful change is hard and takes practice.
The C.A.L.M. is a word and an acronym that stands the attitude you need to take as the Meta-cognitive Observer. That is, it refers to the frame the M.O. adopts as it perceives the unfolding of mental processes.
C stands for an attitude of being Curious. Curiosity is the attitude of open uncertainty and a desire to know more. It means taking the stance of wondering, and seeking understanding. This means that an individual adopts a questioning attitude, first and foremost. Thus, the curious portion of the M.O. asks “what, where, how, when, why” questions about the key domains of one’s psyche. In particular, it asks which feeling is the primary process mind actually feeling? Where did it (or they) come from? Why were they elicited? What are goals and needs are they being activated by? This is the first domain of curiosity. The focus then turns to the secondary mind. What thoughts do these feelings activate? What would the deliberative mind say about what the individual should feel? Where do these ideas come from and what purpose do they serve?
The stance of curiosity sets the stage for awareness and attunement to what actually is going on. Many folks short circuit this process by impulsively reacting negatively and attempt to control and escape from feelings prior to understanding them at all.
A stands for Acceptance. To be genuinely curious, one must be open to what one might find. Acceptance means one is able to be with the feeling. To feel the feeling. To be with the pain and the awkwardness without freaking out. This is hard, but with practice it can be done. From an attitudinal perspective, we draw on Buddhist insights regarding suffering. The first principle in Buddhism is Life is Suffering, and that some suffering is inevitable. The Buddha realized that to run from suffering, to pretend it is not there, to try and jam it back stage, or to control it in other ways is not possible, does not lead to escape but leads instead to more suffering. Acceptance is the capacity to tolerate the pain and to do so in an open and nonjudgmental way. It is NOT easy.
As an individual advances in their capacities for acceptance, it moves over into the relational world. That is, not only do we learn to accept our own pain (and associated weaknesses and limitations and other elements we would normally judge to be unacceptable), we also are able to accept others for who and what they are.
The cultivation of relational attitudes of acceptance, moves us into the “L”, which stands for Loving Compassion toward self and others. It recognizes the basic wisdom that people have dignity and are worthy of respect, and that this is a starting point for constructing in a just world. It also means adopting the stance that we wish folks the best; that is, we hope they flourish and have high well-being. And we feel compassion or sympathy for those who are genuinely suffering. The attitude is cultivated because most people at their core are generally (with only a few exceptions) doing the best they can.
Finally, given all of this, what is one to do? This bring us to the “M” which stands for Motivated to learn and grow toward valued states of being. The deliberative, self-conscious narrator has goals, has a purpose. Ideally, perhaps through values clarification, you have notions about what the person you want to be. Notions about what are fundamental “goods” and how one wants to live life over the long run. Sometimes these ideals are called eulogy values, because they refer to what is said at a funeral of an admirable person; the sentiments about the kind of person they were and the way they lived their life. We call this “valued states of being.” And so, the M refers to the attitude of motivated to learn and grow in toward valued states of being. This is the element that allows you to separate out the feelings from the actions that the feelings orient you to engage in. Thus, accept the feelings, regulate the actions that stem from them in relation to valued states of being.
For me in that high school cafeteria the more valued state of being would have led me to accept the brutal event with courage and to face what happened without collapse. If I can muster the ego strength to do this, it keeps me from running out of the room and crawling into a fetal position.
The bottom line is that next time you find yourself bumped by life and experiencing distress, rather than negatively lashing out, either at others or yourself, take a deep breath and activate a C.A.L.M. M.O. stance and see if you can move toward where you want to be.