A few years ago now, in the middle of what up to then had been a very ordinary day, my bride tugged at my shirt sleeve and asked me why I was always so negative. It was a complete game changer. In that moment I realised I had become the very thing I most passionately did not want to become. I was a grumpy old man.
It instantly gave me heart palpitations and a general sense of unease that quite quickly turned into anxiety bordering on panic. What have I done? What have I become? It instantly dragged me back to the same feeling I had, when as a fifteen year old I saw the girl of my dreams kissing my friend. Completely gut wrenching. A stock take was needed instantly.
It only took a few minutes to realise that in the last week, just about everything I had said about the outside world was a criticism. I held up everything to my judgement. The news, politicians, journos, drug traffickers, teachers, bosses, world leaders, neighbours, pop stars and pretty much anything that came into my view. While there may not be too much wrong with that per se, I was only seeing the bad, the imperfect, the fault, the weakness or frailty in them all. Worse than that though I was saying it out loud.
It was time I had a good long look at myself.
It took months of self-examination and introspection to realise that it was a defence mechanism. Not a good one mind you. Because of the work I was doing back then, I was constantly required to stand up and take a position on things, say things and write things from within a very small world that was full of negative, grumpy old men. As a result, I copped a fair bit of criticism for everything from my haircut to my politics. My way of dealing with that criticism was to belittle the source. Which quite quickly developed into a hair-trigger response to everything in the world. I had let that mechanism take me over like one of those jungle vines you see that slowly covers and eventually strangles the life out of a once solid tree.
Frankly, being negative is easy. The newspapers have been teaching that for as long as we have been able to read them. Particularly in Australia where the Tall Poppy syndrome is inculcated into our culture. We are taught to be suspicious, look at people with caution if not derision, question the status quo which only supports the negativity of course. I am not blaming anyone else here by the way, least of all journos that are only out there making a living, taking on that behaviour was all my own stupid doing.
Breaking that behaviour pattern is tough. Recovery is a rocky road. The good news is I had not always been like that. In fact many people through my other jobs had highlighted my positive can-do attitude as a signature ethos. So surely with a few hints, a bit of support and a bit of a game plan, I could undo the hair-trigger and get back to being a cheery nice guy.
My bride had already rung the alarm bells. It is simply not nice to be around negativity all the time and particularly not at such close quarters. I was pretty determined to change and pretty motivated to make the change a lasting one.
The first step was to take some action, not just thinking, but some physical action so I determined to go for a walk by myself each morning and fill that walk with good thinking. I discouraged my bride from coming along (as politely as I could) so that I could devote the walk to better, clearer more positive thinking. I promised myself I would not spend the time gritting my teeth with anxiety or letting negative thoughts into my head. It didn’t always work, but over time as I caught myself getting dark, I tried to work my way through the feeling in a bid to pop out the other side.
Walking really helps. I would get home and do a few quick weights as a way of signing off on that part of the day and I find that bit of exercise combined with good thinking makes a huge difference. On the walk I try to remind myself of things I am grateful about. My bride, my home, my friends, my lifestyle, my wonderful children, my music, my writing, all sorts of stuff that I was pretty happy with. Occasionally I would try to find solutions to things that were worrying me, but often I found that to be a gateway into doom and anger. I try to think of things I could build or people I could support rather than things that were not fair or people who had been cruel or rude.
My walks are still a source of therapy that I need to do. I don’t do it every morning but I know I should. Finding just 30 minutes to go for a walk and get my head straight makes such a big difference to the people around me that I should be thinking of it as a gift to myself. As you can see it is still a work in progress, Even at 55 I am still a work in progress and that’s fine by me.