“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
― Viktor E. Frankl,
Humans are the only species (that we know of) capable of conscious self-awareness. Meaning, I am able to notice that I am having a thought or a feeling and I am able to observe my actions with some objectivity. Even though we can do this, we spend little time reflecting on these capabilities. When we use our self-awareness, we can stop acting like thoughtless reactive robots and start acting like conscientious deliberate individuals.
One of the best expositions related to the topic of self-awareness is demonstrated in A Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Frankl was a Jewish man and trained psychiatrist in Nazi Germany. His life, and beliefs about life, changed radically after he was forced to live in a concentration camp. Frankl endured the kind of suffering and Hell that words most certainly fail to capture. However, here is my best effort:
What we as people are capable of doing to one another is horrifying. I refuse to excuse the behavior as evil, because in doing so the responsibility is removed from the offending party and positioned in the hands of demons or the devil (unpunishable spirits and forces). We as individuals are answerable for our actions or inactions.
Frankl, while imprisoned, realized that even in the most atrocious conditions, a person still has the capacity to choose their attitude. When he shifted his focus from his own personal suffering to helping others in the camp or daydreaming about his wife (with the understanding that she was probably dead) and how much he loved her, he was able to feel hopeful about his situation. At one point, he was given the opportunity to escape, but elected to stay and help sick prisoners.
What does it mean to choose your attitude?
- We may not always have control over our circumstances and they may not always be ideal. In some cases, we may be exposed to horrific situations.
- We cannot control how something makes us feel but/and just because we feel bad, sad, mad, angry, etc does not mean we have to remain stuck in that feeling. We know that feelings, even the scariest, will eventually pass and a different feeling will fill the space. The best thing to do is to comfort yourself when you have those feelings. The worst thing to do is to say, “I shouldn’t feel this way.”
- We cannot control the thoughts that come into our heads but we can choose to spend more time with the thoughts that bring us more contentment. For example, the thought “I am not good enough” may come into your head if you make a mistake. It is okay to just notice you are having that thought and remind yourself that you are human and doing the best you can. It’s best to try and let each thought pass like puffy clouds floating in the sky. We have an estimated 50,000 per day. So, give yourself a break and let them float on through without grabbing on and analyzing them.
- When we focus on helping and loving others, our circumstances are instantly improved. We are moved out of our own heads and into the outside world.
Let me try to provide you a practical example of this in action:
Imagine my boss comes into my office and says: “Sissy, you made a mistake”
I do not have control of my immediate thoughts and feelings.
Immediate feelings: shame, fear, sadness, and anger
Immediate thoughts: I’m bad at my job, I’m a bad person, My boss is a bad person, I hate my boss, I hate my job, I need to get out of here as soon as possible
Immediate physical feelings: stomachache, chest tightens, breath shallow, shaking, eyes well up with tears.
I do have control over how I respond to my immediate thoughts and feelings.
I can just notice that I am having a lot of strong thoughts and feelings. I can take a few deep breaths and pause to collect myself. I can put my hand on my stomach to comfort the stress. I can comfort myself by reminding myself that I am doing the best I can. And, I can do all of this without my boss noticing.
I can ask my boss questions about what she means to better understand what happened. I can call my partner or a friend after I talk with my boss and ask for support (maybe have a good cry). I can take it easy the rest of the day (or more) until the issue is resolved and I feel better. I can get out of my own head and interact with people I love in an effort to remind myself that I am loved.
Often times, we do not pause between event/trigger and reaction. We walk around like raw exposed nerves reacting to each and every trigger in our environment without pausing to consider what is the healthiest response to this situation.
If Viktor Frankl can find hope in a concentration camp, you can find hope in your current situation. If you slow down, notice how you are thinking and what you are feeling, address these thoughts and feelings with compassion, and focus on loving and helping others you will transform your life. I promise.
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom” – Viktor E. Frankl