July is the month many Americans celebrate freedom. People fly the American flag, host cookouts, and shoot fireworks. But there is more to freedom than burgers and a day off work. Freedom is a choice and a responsibility. While others may protect us from myriad harms—physical, mental and emotional, financial, spiritual, and environmental—we are responsible for our attitude, our inner acceptance or rejection of our experiences. Our attitude is one possession no one can take from us. It is one of the few things in life we can control twenty-four/seven. This means we always have an opportunity to decide our attitude.
When was the last time someone said to you, “You have such a great attitude after all you’ve been through. You inspire me.”; “You need to do something about your attitude.” We then receive a barrage of ways to “adjust” our attitude. “Look at the bright side.” “Think about what happened to me; that was even worse.” “Stop complaining and think about someone else for a change.” We tried to think and behave differently out of guilt, shame, coercion, or fear. But our real feelings and the resulting attitude did not change.
Before I proceed, I want to emphasize that all feelings are valid. They are based on our interpretation of an experience. They tell us when we have been validated and when we have been violated. Our attitude and actions based on those feelings are a matter of choice. Our words, gestures, and behaviors may illuminate more accurately who we really are and our opinions and feelings. When we are in acute emotional distress our attitude is strongest, although subconsciously, and we may speak or behave in ways we later regret. The words and actions we engage in a heated moment may reveal our true feelings about a situation.
So, what is attitude? Where did it come from? What does it do? Attitude is the outcome, the result of our interpretation of all we experience, read, observe, and hear. Our interpretations form a set of beliefs as our thoughts solidify our feelings about a person, thing, idea, or experience. Repetition cements those beliefs and feelings as our repeated experience yields the same or similar result. It begins in early childhood, the first time we taste peas or hear a word from our parents and later, when we repeat it, find out it is a “bad” word. Our interpretation had been that the word was appropriate because our parents said it.
Our life unfolded as we grew, and we received more messages in various forms as indicated above. Our experiences now included classmates, teachers, the media, religious experiences, bosses, colleagues and coworkers, subordinates, social relationships, and a host of casual contacts with others. As we develop attitudes we do so with judgment—looking at a situation with sensitivity and compassion or with blame and hatred. The former frees us to take action to benefit a situation. The latter hinders our ability to recognize the truth. Across our lifespan, attitudes are affirmed, changed, abandoned, or denied. Some attitudes are harder to change than others. And, our attitudes run across a continuum from mild to intense, depending on the situation and the importance it has in our life.
At first, the freedom to choose our attitude sounds like blaming the victim. We are told, “That’s just the way she is. Don’t waste your time thinking about it.”; “His opinions of you aren’t your truth. Just ignore him.”; “Don’t make matters worse. Be the better person and move on.” As children, many of us recited the snarky adage, “Stick and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” The truth is words are powerful and the stronger the emotional investment we have into the person in our life, the more devastating their words can be. We invest a lot of ourselves into our relationships, from our early caregivers to every relationship thereafter. The attitudes of others toward us can manifest in hurtful words and deeds of physical, verbal, emotional, or spiritual abuse from which many of us never recover.
Sometimes emotional pain is so intense and so deep that looking at the experience with renewed vision may be impossible. Treat yourself with the comforting of self-compassion. Use the “Self-Compassion Break” by Kristin Neff, Ph.D. which I included in last month’s column. Talk to someone you trust—mental health professional, religious leader, spiritual director, or a close relative or friend. The therapists and counselors of Des Moines Pastoral Counseling Center will walk your journey with you and support you as you explore your life’s events. You can schedule an appointment with the Center here.
When I am in crisis mode, I forget I have a choice about my attitude. At those times, the thought that I can choose my attitude frustrates me. I want relief from my searing emotions. I want the other people to change. I equate the responsibility as an admonition that my current attitude is unacceptable, and neither am I as a person. I see the suggestion as a personal assault. Attitude adjustment and choosing my attitude mean giving up my freedom of perception and perspective, an infringement on my personhood. I think it compromises my right to feel. I think I am acquiescing to blind acceptance of the situation. The reality is my current attitude may not only not contribute to the solution but also may make me feel worse by robbing me of peace of mind.
However, I must take care to not try to manipulate my attitude as a form of resignation and people-pleasing, giving in to something I do not want or is not good for me. When I am violated my attitude is valid. Sometimes, so-called “bad” attitudes are seen as such by people who want us to continue to live with their abuse of us. Anger is a relatively new feeling for me, and it empowers me to self-advocate. Please know that when someone tries to force you change your attitude for their gratification, you have every right to maintain your position, always in consideration of your safety. Caution: The tightrope here is the line between our desire to maintain a judgmental and hurtful set of beliefs, thoughts, and attitudes, or admit our misperceptions, and commit ourselves to compassion, unity, and peace.
Changing our attitude does not guarantee our lives will enter a state of perpetual rosiness. Nor will we feel positive all the time. The lens of kindness does not mean we allow harmful situations to continue. Attitudes often develop over time, so they may take to time to transform. The outcome of any given situation is unknown until it is revealed. We still may not like the result. The decisions and behavior of everyone involved influence the direction of the relationship. Our new attitude, however, promotes independence and resilience when future situations flare up. It undergirds our desire to live with authenticity.
Genuine attitude adjustment requires soul-searching, honesty, and courage. Think of choosing your attitude as an act of self-compassion and self-care. Acknowledge and express the feelings as fully and appropriately as possible. The key and first step in attitude transformation are to ask, “How can I see this differently?” To look at a long-held belief and the resultant attitude means exploring the roots of the belief and how it fits, or not, into your life now. Does it represent what you really feel? Is it in line with your values? Does it cause harm to you or to someone else, whether that harm is physical, financial, or otherwise? Then ask, “What do I want to do about this situation? What are my options?” With whom can I collaborate?’ Our attitude leads us into action or inaction.
There is freedom in choosing our attitude. We get to say what is okay in our life and what is not. We decide how to approach situations. Our freedom lies in our ability to be honest with ourselves with full recognition of and respect for the role of others in the encounter. We acknowledge, sometimes with great difficulty, the feelings and attitudes of other people. Dialogue and interaction can be instrumental in the process of attitudinal change.
I have said before that when I rely only on my perceptions without consideration of the other person, I am wrong one hundred percent of the time. I challenge all of us to explore our minds and hearts with intention to discover our misperceptions and seek out ways to learn the truth. Reach out to people different from you. Ask questions. View everyone as a learning opportunity. Enjoy the new life you create for yourself by the education you gain from others.