The Work

I am snappy today because I am tired. Whenever I get tired, I have a very short fuse. It is impossible for me to remain calm and mindful. People need sleep.

I am tired today, so I was short with my husband. I grabbed my 2-year-old sternly by the wrist. I sneered at my 6-year-old.

This is a story. It is a story about the kind of person you are and the kind of thing that you do.

More than that, this is a story that isn’t serving you.

It’s time to do The Work.

Anytime we find ourselves repeating stories, especially ones about who we fundamentally are, we need to do The Work. The Work is an exercise by Byron Katie. (She provides a lot of her work for free on her website.)

It’s four simple questions we can ask ourselves whenever we are having antagonistic beliefs.

(1) Is it true?

(2) Can you absolutely know it is true?

(3) How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought?

(4) Who would you be without that thought?

In the context of the story of the person who is snappy because they are tired, the work might look like this:

(1) Is it true? Yes, I am snappy because I’m tired!

(2) Can you absolutely know it is true? Not really. I act snappy when I am tired. That doesn’t mean I am snappy because I am tired.

(3) How do you react, what happens, when you believe that thought? I don’t even work to be anything other than snappy when I am feeling tired. Then I feel guilty for being a grump.

(4) Who would you be without that thought? I’d be a person who is choosing to be snappy when I am.

I have written about annata before. It is the idea of non-self. When we stop believing in a solid self, a person who we are instead of just a thing that we do, we can evaluate our behavior from a more objective point of view and try to figure out whether or not our actions are serving us.

When we try to figure out who someone else is, we look at their actions. More and more, we are finding that we do the same thing to find out who we are. Aristotle knew this when he said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellent, then, is not an act, but a habit.”

In the book Influence, author Robert Cialdini goes over the stories of how the American POWS in Korean prison camps were convinced that communism wasn’t that bad. One way they did this was by having them say one seemingly innocuous comment about America being perfect, or communism not being the worst thing ever. They’d ask prisoners to explain why. Eventually, they might have them write an essay about it.

Since we check on our own actions to make an image of ourselves, and then we desire to be internally consistent with that narrative, these simple actions made the American POWS believe that communism wasn’t that bad.

We see ourselves as a snappy tired person because anytime we are tired, we behave that way.

But what kind of person would we be if we did a different thing? If we thought, instead, “I am the kind of person who handles being tired well.” If when we woke up, we performed the behavior of being kind when we are tired.

Then you would “be” a different person.

Am I saying that you’ll be at your best when you’re sleep deprived? Or that you never need sleep?

No.

I’m saying that the story isn’t helping you be a better person or a better parent. Performing the action that confirms our story isn’t helping. There’s a way to change the internal conversation we are having, and our behavior.

The Work applies to internal and external events. We can use it to think through the malintent we may ascribe to our partner or our children. “Is it true [that my child is bothering me because he wants me to be annoyed]?” The answer is probably not. Who will you be without that thought?
Journal Questions:

  1. What are five stories I tell myself that leave me worse off at the end of the day?
  2. What are things that I do that I don’t want to be?

Practice

  1. Choose one story that you have about who you are that you can do The Work on for the next month. Getting rid of habits and stories takes effort. Start with just one.

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