My mom was sending me non-stop despairing texts for days about how she has to sell her revenue property and how upset she is about it. She’s had a tenant there for the past 7 years with a big dog that has ruined the hardwood, the house needs to be updated, and she feels too old and overwhelmed to do any of it.
She believes selling the house will free her of the stress of fixing up the house, even though she wants to fix up the house to sell it.
My parents rely on this income to support them, so I offered to come down for a week and do the work for them. I asked when the tenant is moving out so I can arrange a plane ticket.
She said he hadn’t given notice yet.
“So, you don’t even know if he’s moving?” I asked.
“Well, I got a call about a reference for him, so he was thinking of moving. Maybe in December.”
Two and a half months away, and it’s a MAYBE. She’s already been suffering for 2 weeks thinking about this, and will stress over this for at least the next 2 months when and if he moves out.
Let me introduce you to a wonderful thing Positive Psychology calls a counter fact. A counter fact is one of the ways our minds help make sense of a world that is unpredictable by imagining alternate endings.
Here’s a classic example of a counter fact:
It’s noon. You walk into a bank. There are 50 people there. A bank robber is there and shoots you in the right arm. How do you interpret this?
Some people say things like:
“Of all the times I could have gone, why did I go at that day and time?”
“I’m right-handed! What am I going to do now?”
“There was 50 people in the bank, why was I the one shot?”
Some other people might say things like:
“Thank goodness it was only my right arm and not my heart.”
“I’m so glad it was only my arm, and no one got killed.”
“I’m grateful it was me, instead of a child.”
What all of these examples have in common is that they are comparing what happened to what COULD have happened. Our minds imagine these alternate realities to make meaning out of our experiences. An alternate reality is one where you didn’t go to the bank on noon that day and avoided being shot altogether, or a reality where you didn’t get shot but a child did.
The difference is that the first examples of counter facts have a negative bias that focuses on how bad it is for us, the second examples show a positive spin and gratitude because things could have been so much worse.
Worry, stress, anxiety, and fear are always the first examples.
And the crazy thing is, NONE of the examples positive or negative actually happened.
They are both made up.
We can choose at any time how we view our lives and the experiences we have in them. As the Dalai Lama famously said, “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” Pain is a function of living, it’s how we interpret it that creates the suffering.
So why not choose an interpretation, a mindset, that helps us feel hopeful, grateful, and positive?
Just so you know, I’m just as prone to falling for the first examples when I’m stressed and overwhelmed. it’s hard not to.
What helps cultivate a positive mindset is my daily meditation practice. It helps me experience my life in a more balanced way, so that when I see my thoughts leaning towards the negative, I can observe them yet not have to buy into them. I don’t have to take my life so personally.
Here’s how I responded to my mom. I said, “This must feel really hard. Let me know when you receive his notice and I’ll get a ticket to help you out.”
We can only work on ourselves no matter how much we want to relieve the suffering of our loved ones. And hopefully (this is my wish), that as I slowly untangle and free myself, it can help free her as well.
Now that you know what a counter fact is, I’ll bet you start seeing it everywhere. I did.
Tell me your thoughts in the comments below!