One of the things I often see with clients is that when people share their stories or concerns about something causing them distress or the potential outcome of something, they tell it to me expecting me to agree with their assessment, which is usually, “This is a big f*cking deal.”
Like, “If I do that, my partner will get mad.” or “If I tell the truth, I’ll hurt their feelings.” or “I may have to move.” “I could lose my job.”
And my response is often something that can be sort of jarring, but it’s intended to be. Because it’s really important that when we tell a story, we separate out the facts from our perceptions, and no coach worth their salt is doing you any favors by buying into your story.
What I’ll often ask is, “So what?”
Or a version thereof.
So what if that person thinks this of you?
So what if that happens?
Another way of asking this is, “What are you making that story mean?” Often, it’s about what they’re making it mean about themselves.
One thing it’s important to remember here is that our brain is a very sophisticated machine that can process a lot of info but it has its limits. There’s no way we can be constantly processing everything that comes its way. So it has to filter out what’s important vs what’s not important.
For example, if I look up from writing this (in my condo in Hawaii) and observe outside, I can see the huge ocean waves, the birds, and boogie boarders.
What I won’t see is the tiny details on each bird, or the brands of the boogie boards or what lineup they chose. I’m focusing on the waves and how big they are since they’re right in front of my condo.
When we’re out and about, I do notice tiny details about plants, because I’m training to notice those things. I’m telling my brain that paying attention to that is important to me now.
So if the brain finds it important or significant, it will notice. And how does it decide what’s important?
WE have to decide what’s important and tell it that. Sure, there are traumatic events that will implant things for our brain to be on high alert about, but other things are mostly determined by the filte rwe tell our brain to have on.
We already tell our brains what’s important subconsciously by having a story running in the background, but we don’t consciously do it. We have to say, “Hey this matters to me.” Otherwise, it will go back to that default mode.
One way we can start to do this is mindfulness of thoughts – to be aware of what our brain is already looking for. What have we trained it to see, or what has it picked up on due to significant events in our lives?
We can ask ourselves, “Have I intentionally decided this, or am I operating in default my mode?” (which can come from a past traumatic experience or our childhood events).
This matters because humans don’t do things because it’s rational. We’re driven by how we think something will make us feel. The motivational triad – seek pleasure, avoid pain, do what’s easy..
It’s how we evolved to survive, and back then, it kept us safe to do so. But now, we have to make sure that we’ve trained ourselves to create those feelings we want and that better serve us, especially when we’re no longer in survival mode.
One of my favorite questions I ask myself when I’m suffering is, “Why am I choosing thoughts that create suffering for me right now?” Sometimes, I’ll choose to keep thinking that way. But more often than not, I’ll be like, “Screw it! I’ve already had cancer twice… and life is too short. I choose happiness and ease today…or at least, I choose alignment.”
This is why, when we’re doing any work on ourselves, if we start to freak out about possible outcomes or something that’s happened, one of the most powerful things we can do is ask ourselves, “….So what?”
Now, an important note here is that whatever you’re telling yourself (they could talk crap about me, he could be mad at me, I would have to find a new career…) may in fact be true. But the point of the question is really to ask yourself if you’re going to allow that to hook you and then spin into a crappy mindset…or can we choose to help our brain realize a reality that better serves us, that is one of more freedom?
We can realize that it’s okay for people to not like us, for them to react emotionally at us, or for us to be in a place of big change in our lives.
We can decide instead to find friends who love us for our authentic selves, or say “eff that” to a desk job and explore our SOUL purpose. Right?
So next time you’re upset, tell yourself your story – and really amp up those emotions and catastrophic details – and then ask yourself, “So what?”
Another important piece of asking ourselves this question is that we can start to see the patterns of stories in our mind, the old belief systems we have that keep playing in the background over and over.
Like I could have a friend tell some other mutual friends that they didn’t like how I’m too intense. And someone else could tell me I talk too loudly or interrupt too much. Or I could think about how my first husband would think something was clinically wrong with me because I would get so passionate about a topic when immersing in it and obsess about it.
In each of those situations, I’ve made them mean the same old story from my childhood – that I’m too intense or “too much.” This happens even when I ALSO have so much evidence to the contrary, like all my friends that DO love my wacky ways and intense personality and the way I don’t fuck around with small talk.
But because I’m in the habit of looking for evidence that I’m too intense, I become more aware of evidence that proves that true.
This is where asking “What am I making it mean about me?” really comes in. When I think that maybe I’m just too much, the reality is I’m likely pulling from a negative theme I’ve had some other time in my life.
I’m allowing my brain to only confirm and believe things that show what it already believes to be true, instead of considering that maybe the evidence just doesn’t support that thought or belief anymore (or that it never even did).
We can also use “So what?” to look at our past. We can look at our childhood, our career, our relationships, our marriage… everything. We can also use it for smaller everyday things – so what if I got cut off in traffic, if I showed up late to the meeting, if I got a snarky email from a colleague?
Remember, you get to tell the story, and choose the version that best serves you at this moment in life. That’s one of the greatest gifts of being a human with a prefrontal cortex. You get to choose the meaning you give … to everything.
We can make events in our life mean something about how we were a victim of something horrible, or we can make it mean we are the heroin of our own freaking hero’s journey, in our own adventure of the soul.
We can remember that there are some things we can change, and some that we can’t. As Shantideva said in The Bodhisattva’s Guide to the Way of Life, “if you can change something, why be unhappy? If you can’t change something, why be unhappy?”
No matter what life send our way, we can get curious about, “So what? What do I want to make that mean?” and let what follows show us what our brain is doing at the time. Mindfulness of thoughts.
When we think about what we want to make it mean, I highly recommend choosing a meaning that creates less unnecessary suffering for us. Life is too short not to, my friend. And unnecessary suffering is optional.
You will learn:
// How asking ourselves “So what?” can free us from unnecessary suffering
// What mindfulness if thoughts has to do with this simple question
// How we can retrain our brain to pull us out of our default stories – and into what we CHOOSE to make important in our lives
// How we can apply this question to our past and rewrite our story
// Why this works with everyday events as well as big life stories
// Episode 2: How to Not Care What People Think About You
// Episode 14: Cognitive Dissonance + How to Create New Beliefs
// Episode 60: How to Avoid Unnecessary Suffering
// If you’re new to the squad, grab the Rebel Buddhist Toolkit I created at RebelBuddhist.com. It has all you need to start creating a life of more freedom, adventure, and purpose. You’ll also get access to the Rebel Buddhist private group, and tune in every Wednesday as I go live with new inspiration and topics.
// Want something more self-paced with access to weekly group support? Check out Freedom School – the community for ALL things related to freedom, inside and out. Learn more at JoinFreedomSchool.com. I can’t wait to see you there!