It seems to me that the difference between happy people and unhappy people is in the translation of the events of their lives. It’s also the difference between successful people and unsuccessful people — but sometimes I shudder at the word “successful,” as it tends to conjure up images of Tony Robbins and fire walks and head-butting and high-five slapping stuff that makes some of us want to head for the nearest art gallery or hiking trail.
Truly though, if there is one thing to learn from these head-butting success-guru types it’s that there is great wisdom in the act of shifting how you translate your life situation. I heard Stephen Covey say, “How you handle the situation IS the situation.” I wrote that profound little quote on a piece of paper and stuck it on the wall of my office where it stayed for quite some time. It led me to make up a process for myself that I call “retranslation.” I then changed the quote for my own purposes to say, “How you translate the situation is the situation.”
Retranslation will be a life-long practice if your default position has typically been doubt, despair, shame or depression. By “default position,” I mean the first place your mind and thoughts go when a “mistake” has been made, when an expectation wasn’t met, when criticism was received, or when some situation sends you into some fall-back position of negativity. When you begin to follow your dreams, or take risks, or change your life for the better, you also have to begin to observe the old patterns that no longer serve you. Sometimes I think this is the only reason to take risks — so you don’t go through life settling for what you’ve always believed to be true. And you get to have these moments where you look up from your little-mindedness and say, “Ohhhhhh. You mean, I don’t have it quite right here? You mean, there’s a better way of seeing this?”
I come from a background of second-guessers. It didn’t matter what the decision was — if the result brought about any level of discomfort or envy or challenge, my mother would inevitably say, “Oh! We should have… (Fill in the blank – ordered the steak instead of the shrimp, stayed at that beach house and not this one, waited til Hecht’s had a sale and gotten this cheaper)…” I’m not blaming my mom here, but I am saying that I was programmed at an early age for regret, second-guessing, doubt, and not trusting my own judgment and discernment. This is the default position for way too many people.
So, when I leapt into the void and became a performing songwriter, a professional artist, (Believe me, this was a huge leap. I’ll write about it in some future blog) one of the biggest challenges was to face this voice. It wasn’t until I heard Stephen Covey’s statement that I really got that there ultimately aren’t mistakes as I had known them. And even if I had felt like I’d made one, then nothing is unchangeable, unforgivable or un-retranslatable. It does, however, take awareness, discipline and perseverance.
Regret is not the only default position I’m talking about here. There are many Very Bad Translations (or VBT’s – for those following my acronymically-prone blogs) that you can conjure up – believing you’ve screwed up, or automatically concluding, “Well, I guess it’s just not meant to happen.” Or telling yourself you failed because some situation has become filled with challenges and obstacles. The aforementioned happy or successful person will look at those challenges and say, “Huh. What do I need to learn here to break through these? What is the lesson this challenge is trying to teach me?” The other kind of person will say, “Oh God. See? I’ve done it all wrong. What was I thinking that I even thought I could do this for a living? I should just quit.” And then the ultimate icing for those of you who are really good at beating yourself up – “God must not want me to do this.” (I grew up Catholic, and I have a PhD in the practice of bringing God into my VBT’s.)
I’m not saying that there isn’t pain involved in these situations. I’m not saying you simply flick a switch and then you translate your life differently and “Yay it’s all better!” This, as with everything I write about, is a process and consequently, an awakening. If your usual reaction takes you to a place where you’re tempted to give up on your dream or on yourself, or to a belief that you are worthless, you may need to learn that the problem is in your translation, in your reaction, and not in the situation. In other words, learn to be very skeptical of any response that makes you feel powerless or small.
If you’re a journal writer, I highly suggest doing these steps in writing. It helps me to do these steps in my journal. But it’s fine to do them quietly in your head. Speaking them aloud as if you’re talking to someone can be a great exercise too. You can call a friend, tell her what you’re about to do, and let her listen.
All you’re really doing in this process is saying no to being a victim and programming yourself to know your own power and see any drama for what it is.
So, let’s say a situation – big or small – has sent you into one of those reaction modes. Here’s what to do:
1. Climb a tree.
Pretend that you are way up high looking down onto your life as just a movie or a play. Look down from this vantage point at yourself as a character.
2. See the situation.
What is the situation? Just lay down the facts without the spin. “Here’s what I did. Here’s what I wanted. Here’s what I thought would happen. Here’s where I got scared. Here’s what didn’t happen. Here’s where he yelled at me.”
3. Translate the situation from your usual place.
How are you tempted to translate the situation? Write it all down. How you’ve made an irreversible mistake. How the situation has ruined your life and the lives of everyone around you. How God is trying to tell you you’re a loser and no one likes you. Whatever your default position is.
3a. Is this true?
This is not one of my original steps. This is from the work of Byron Katie, and I’ve only recently begun to ask myself this. Before moving on, ask yourself deeply, “Is this really true?” of each of these emotionally charged statements. Asking this tends to diffuse some of the charge that’s in them because they’re usually not even close to the truth.
4. Make a list of at least five possible other ways to look at this, or translate it.
This is the power of looking down from your place in the tree. Try looking from another angle. It can be very specific and dense — “Well, it’s clear that our main character (me) is taking this way too personally. Maybe the first translation is that she’s building strength because as she gets better and better at what she does, more and more people are going to give her their opinions, and this is only the beginning of her learning to be stronger.” Or it can be as simple as: “That other person who was so critical could have had a bad morning and didn’t know he was being harsh.” I recommend getting a little ridiculous in one of your retranslations just to lighten up. “That critical person was so harsh because at that very moment he had spilled his coffee in his lap, and his thighs were burning, and then his boss walked into his pathetic little cubicle and fired him, just as his wife called and left him for the plumber Ķand by the time I called, he had no job, no wife, and hot thighs.”
5. Make a list of five small action steps you can take from a place of belief in the new translation.
In an earlier blog, I wrote about “small chunks” — breaking the big projects into action steps. Action steps are the best way out of the old translation because they signal to your unconscious that you really believe in the new translation. A step could be “Let myself lick my wounds today. Tomorrow, wake up and make two more calls.”
5. Do the first step. Repeat as necessary.
My own retranslation
I’ve done this process for big huge things, like major conflicts, to teeny-tiny “I’m embarrassed that this is triggering me so much” incidents — like when a friend snaps at me on the phone.
Here’s one example: When I was getting ready to record my CD Rain & Mud & Wild & Green, I was working with a Life Coach. The person with whom I had co-produced my last CDs had moved away and was no longer involved in music at all. I had to find a producer. My coach assigned me the task of writing down the names of all my favorite producers. The next assignment was to contact them starting with the first on the list, and send my demo. The first producer on my list was a Texas-based hard-edged ultra-cool sunglasses-wearing type. He was very kind when I emailed him. He wanted me to send him my stuff. I did. Then when I followed up, he told me he didn’t want to work with me, and that he didn’t think he was the right person for me.
Now, the knee-jerk reaction in this situation could be, “See? I’m no good. I got rejected on the first try. No one likes me. My new songs are awful. God thinks I should go get my MBA. And this is just how he’s trying to tell me that.” And on and on.
Luckily, I had already been doing this work. And though I was tempted to go into those reactions, I shifted them. The first translation I chose was, “Wow. What an amazing man that he could be so honest and up front and actually let me know he wasn’t going to work with me, rather than just not returning my email. That’s a big deal in this business. I value this level of honesty.” The second place was, “Well, well. Look at me. I got rejected and I’m still strong. I think I’m growing up!” And the next step was to try again. I wasn’t scared anymore, mostly because I knew that I had just faced one of my biggest fears, and I wasn’t going to quit. I became the one who decided when I would stop no matter who did or didn’t want to work with me.
Note: I have a lot more wisdom now in the area of production. That first producer would have been an unbelievably bad match for my music. Most of his records are very tough, and cool, and smoky-bar feeling. Much as I’d love to be “cool,” I’m not. I can see now that he wouldn’t have known what to do with my songs and lyrics. I doubt a single artist he’s worked with has ever written a line like, “You open your heart and that changes everything.” I needed someone who could get that side of me, and I found the best person for the project and had an amazing time. Getting “rejected” was a fantastic experience. I recommend it highly. (It helped to have a coach to work with me on it too.)
A few random thoughts on retranslation:
“You don’t have hindsight yet.”
This is a quote from Barbara Waterhouse, a minister here in Asheville. In the face of emotional drama, this is what she reminds herself and others. For instance, at the time that first producer didn’t want to work with me, I didn’t have the wisdom — the hindsight — to recognize that he wasn’t a good choice. I simply knew I liked the records he made. I didn’t realize that a match wasn’t there. I didn’t have hindsight.
How many of us have gone through a seemingly disastrous event only to look back several years later and get that it was the very best thing that could have happened? One of the biggest life-changing events I had was getting dumped big time after I had traveled to freakin’ South Africa to be with the love of my life. Right in the Johannesburg airport. (BAM! Change of plans!) And within two years, I had hindsight. Two months prior to my trip to South Africa, I had already set the intent that I wanted to write and play music and have a bigger life than I ever dreamed of. I think my boyfriend was just collaborating with my intent and letting me go live my dreams. It only LOOKED like rejection. (And yes, it felt like it at the time. Especially since I had this massive cold sore that day.) But I didn’t have hindsight. That took a year or two. It’s okay if one of your translations is “I don’t have hindsight yet. I’m willing to consciously allow for that.”
One of the trickiest translations I hear is the ever-elusive “God’s will” translation. I don’t do it anymore. I no longer believe in a version of God who stands above you and tries to show you what you’ve done wrong by making stuff fall apart in your life, hoping that you’ll figure out how to read his wacky divine message on your own. This sounds to me less like God and more like Dennis Hopper.
I don’t believe in a push that’s outside of us. If God is “infinite” as so many theologians say (I was a theology major, so I heard this statement often), then can’t we conclude that infinite doesn’t stop at the borders of our lives, our bodies, and our minds? Call me Obi-Wan, but “The force is with you” makes way more sense to me than “It must be God’s will for you to be miserable.”
Regardless of the theological implications, I believe that sometimes the things we want aren’t necessarily in alignment with our deepest desires and values and it’s up to us to wake up and get that. (Refer back to my South Africa example.) Saying that God is telling you you’re not doing the right thing takes the responsibility (and power) away from you. It makes it so that you have your hands tied and, “Oh well. It wasn’t God’s will.” I have found that there’s a bigger act of bravery in stepping back and letting the solution (even if that solution is not to complete the goal) come to you and act on it consciously. “Well, it must not be God’s will” just makes you a victim, yet again.
Addiction to Drama
I believe that the core issue behind any of the initial reactions and translations we have is really an addiction to drama or negativity. We feed on it. Eckhart Tolle calls it the Pain Body and very accurately depicts it as an entity that feeds on our negativity. It’s the reason why Fox News succeeds. We revel in the drama. Without it, what’s there? Space. And what do we do with that? Space is uncomfortable. We have to fill it – fast – with this frenzy of emotion and distraction. If you find yourself doing this, don’t shame yourself. Just step back. Begin to observe your tendency to translate everything dramatically.
Fear of your Own Mind
At some point after about six years of performing, I realized that my stage-fright wasn’t about the shows themselves, but about what I did to myself after the shows. How I translated the performance. Some nights, even if I had done well, and sold thousands of dollars in CD’s, my mind could still translate me into some personal hell. It would find one instance, one person I might have offended with an off-hand remark, and send me into a spiral of shame and embarrassment. I started to realize that none of my fears were about what happened, and all of them were about what I did with what happened. My own mind was more brutal than reality. Once I really got that, I got very protective of myself after a performance. I now sit quietly in the dressing room after a show and get very clear and remind myself I’m not going to start down that road. I’m kind and gentle, especially if something did go a little wonky.
Think about this one for yourself. Are you scared of being rejected? Or are you scared of all the translations you’ll have about it? Are you scared of taking a risk? Or are you scared of the first challenges coming up and what you’ll tell yourself about them? It’s a interesting exercise.
Ultimately, what you come to recognize is how much power you do have. It’s alarming once you get this. And yes, there’s a lot more responsibility there. But there’s so much more freedom. Choose to live from that place.