If only I had more time." How often have you experienced this thought at the start, during or at the end of a busy day?
The reality of life is that each day we all have a finite amount of time (24 hours, 1,440 minutes or 86,400 seconds) to accomplish our "to-do" list related to our families, professional activities and community service. Likewise, each day we all have a certain amount of energy available to accomplish these goals. Whether or not we "find" the time to accomplish our goals is significantly influenced by how we choose to use our energy.
So what does this have to do with feeding vampires?
The energy vampire symbolizes unproductive expenditure of energy and loss of time that occur when we choose to think and then react negatively to seen and unforeseen circumstances that invariably affect each and every one of us each and every day. What can we do to change the effect negative circumstances have on us? What can we do to minimize the mental and emotional baggage that tends to drag us down? Adapted from a commentary published in the Journal of the American Animal Hospital Association, Vol. 36, pages 13-105, 2000, this column will provide some fodder for thought.
Causes and effects of negative thinking
Between a stimulus (or an event) and our response to the stimulus, there is a space. In that space is our opportunity to choose how we will respond. Once an adverse event affects us, we cannot change that event. So, if negative situations develop, what typically happens if we think negatively and then respond negatively? The principle of cause and effect predicts that if we respond in a negative way, the consequence will be unproductive use of our energy and time. Once used, that energy and time are gone. In context of the theme of this essay, when we choose to think and react in a negative rather than positive fashion, we empower the energy vampire to suck away our productivity, our morale and our happiness. Why? Because negative thoughts (e.g. anger, frustration, defensiveness, resentfulness, distrust, fear, guilt, impatience, blaming, selfishness) foster negative results (e.g. indifference, irritability, apathy, anger, withholding, pouting, dislike, hostility, litigation, etc.). In addition, by unproductively using our time and energy, we are at high risk of becoming even more frustrated and angry, which in turn will result in further loss of time and energy. In this context, negative thoughts are not only non-productive; they are counter-productive. I have found that the consequences of impulsive outbursts of angry responses often exceed the frustration that initially prompted my anger.
This situation is a classic example of a vicious cycle of events sustained by self-defeating negative behavior. In other words, making the choice to think and then react negatively about the negative results, which were the consequence of our initial choice to react negatively, fosters the habit of negativity. Why? Because, all of us are creatures of habit even when the habit is self-destructive. For some, negative thinking can even become an addiction. Recall that an addiction has control over us; we do not have control over it.
Caught up in negative energy?
Consider the following example. When I become frustrated with events or the actions of others, I must overcome a tendency to negatively react in terms of my initial thoughts of frustration, disappointment or anger. Especially when I am tired, my initial negative thoughts fed by negative emotions tend to block out my ability to choose a positive course of action based on knowledge and experience.
But I have learned the tough lesson that when I react in a negative way, my clients, colleagues, family and friends often become frustrated and, in turn, may react negatively. Why? Emotions can be contagious. The moment either of us over-reacts and returns the unkind treatment we perceive we are receiving, we become caught up in the exchange of negative energy. My experience on occasions too numerous to count has been that these unpleasant exchanges fueled by negative emotions have escalated into energy-draining, unproductive arguments. Then, when I have subsequently replayed these conflicts in my mind over and over again, in a symbolic way, I have allowed my negative thoughts to further drain my batteries, leaving me without enough positive energy to accomplish worthwhile goals.
Consider another example
After taking an examination, but before you received your exam scores, did you find yourself worrying about the questions that you thought you answered incorrectly rather than balancing your thoughts by also considering the questions that you likely answered correctly? On numerous occasions while attending veterinary school, I expended energy by blowing events out of proportion in this fashion, only to learn later that although I had incorrectly answered some questions, my test scores ranked with others at the top of the class. Other than learning one of life's experiences related to needless worrying, of what benefit today was the choice I made to unproductively worry about an examination more than four decades ago?
One point of this illustration is that if we choose to do so, we can find a negative detail in any situation (e.g. I incorrectly answered a few exam questions) and dwell on it to the extent that we develop the distorted perception that the entire situation is negative (e.g. I performed poorly in taking the entire exam). It is not a negative event, but the choice to negatively respond feeds the energy vampire.
Causes and effects of positive thinking
How can we minimize loss of precious time and energy that invariably occur when we have a negative attitude? Recall that between a stimulus (or an event) and our response to the stimulus, there is a space. In that space is our opportunity to choose how we will respond. Because we can often change our circumstances by changing our attitude, it is to our advantage to think before we react. The principle of cause and effect predicts that if we choose to respond in a positive proactive way, we will limit the amount of energy and time lost in pursuit of unproductive negative reactions.
In these situations, instead of feeding the energy vampire with negative emotions and actions, we can starve him by making the choice a positive one. Recall that negative thoughts (e.g. being defensive, resentful, suspicious, blaming, selfish) foster negative results (e.g. being indifferent, apathetic, withholding, uncooperative, hostile, litigious, etc.). However, positive thoughts (e.g. being understanding, compassionate, appreciative, trusting, forgiving, etc.) foster positive results (giving, sharing, caring, communicative, enlightening, happy and productive). When we allow ourselves to be reactive, we let the words and actions of others control our feelings. Classic examples of this are embodied in the statements, "You make me angry!" and "Now look what you made me do!" In contrast, when we practice being proactive, we exercise control over our feelings, and thus focus our thoughts and actions on events that we can influence in a positive fashion. By thinking about problems as opportunities rather than obstacles, we can put plans into action to explore creative alternatives. Thus, we symbolically starve problems and feed opportunities.
It's about choices
The key point of this column is that being negative or being positive is the result of our choices. Practical application of this principle does not relate primarily to whether or not we express our feelings, but the manner in which we express them. We all have a choice about to how we will react to circumstances. Each of us is responsible for our choice to either magnify or help resolve the problems we face.
The question is, do we recognize our responsibility to develop our "response ability"? True, this requires practice and patience. But understanding the principle that we are responsible for our own mental attitude and frame of mind is to our great benefit. Why? Because, it provides us with the opportunity to exercise self-control and to consciously choose how we feel and act. On the other hand, if we do not pause and think about how to respond (that is we do not wisely use our response ability), we will by default feed the energy vampire by choosing to allow other people and circumstances to negatively influence our reactions and thereby reduce our effectiveness.
If we don't want our energies and time to be consumed by unproductive negativism, we must proactively choose to starve the energy vampire. I have learned that throughout each day, I often become involved with plenty of negative external events over which I have no direct control. Therefore, when I look into the mirror at the start of each day, I ask myself, "Are you going to work with me, or will your thoughts and actions work against me by empowering the energy vampire?" I then reflect on renewing my commitment of trying to be positive — even when I face adversity. In fact, it is especially when we face adversity that we need to conserve our energy by focusing on being positive. Especially then we must be careful not to let our appreciation for what we have be soured by our preoccupation with what we do not have. Especially then we must choose to use positive thoughts to free our minds of replaying negative energy draining thoughts about past, present and perhaps future external events over which we have no control. If we can learn to be selective in how we choose to think and act, it will enable us to allocate more of our precious energy and time to the people and goals that we cherish most.
By proactively thinking about our choices, we can change the effect negative circumstances have on us. We can minimize the mental and emotional baggage that tends to drag us down. By choosing to think positively and transforming these thoughts into positive actions, being positive will become a part of our personality. Why? Because we become what we repeatedly do. Being positive will then be more than an act; it will become a habit — and good habits are as hard to break as bad ones.
Dr. Osborne, a diplomate of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine, is professor of medicine in the Department of Small Animal Clinical Sciences, College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Minnesota.