We think other people have the power to send us into towering infernos of anger or to make our day blissful.
The truth is: Our minds are creative places where we take our own brushes, pencils and paper, and turn it into whatever we choose. When an idea or a thought comes into our mind, we decide what we will do with it. Like the painter, we can make a thin-line sketch or a magnificent masterpiece fleshed out in full color. Like the playwright, we can craft a short script or turn it into an all-day theatrical production.
Our minds fill in the script line by line, supply the actors, create the backdrop and imagine the plot. In short, we create the thoughts we choose to dwell on. We trash thoughts we don’t find important. We have total control of our minds – whether we like it or not.
God gave us the ability to stand apart from ourselves and analyze our thoughts. We become the analytical director or the art critic of our own works of art in the files of our brain.
As a teenager, I was shy and felt inferior to everyone around me. My parents didn’t teach me that. I created the image by the way I allowed myself to paint the picture and write the script of my self-image. I was very creative. I would write and draw by the hour. I could control the plot and the characters in my stories with great agility. I could even mesmerize my sisters and cousins with impromptu storytelling of my dreams and nightmares. When it came to my reality, I wasn’t so good.
The trouble came when I allowed my thoughts to meander, creating dialogue and mind pictures for someone else. A simple glance from another person created a scene of impending doom. I saw a scowl on the face of a person looking at me. Immediately, I assumed the person was angry with us. There were hundreds of reasons why the person might be scowling. He might have been thinking of someone else. He might have had an unexplained pain in his stomach. He might have remembered something he forgot to do, and his facial expression sent me the message that he was angry. I saw him looking at me, and I knew he hated me.
I’d search through the files of my mind to find encounters I’d had with that person. Sure enough, I’d find one. “He thinks I’m too fat. He heard that stupid comment I made in class.” I would build a scene around my assumptions. I’d paint a picture of his thoughts and reactions. I’d write a script in my brain of what I would say to him when we met again. I’d replay the scene again and again.
Each time I did, I’d give it more details. I’d start imagining ways to correct the problem. I will say this, and he will say that. Everything would be swell. The only problem was: When we met again, he hadn’t read the script. When he didn’t hear the cue, I would say something that didn’t make any sense to him. I went away red-faced and feeling more inferior than before.
Finally, I concluded he didn’t like me, and I’d avoid him altogether. The situation got worse as I started to generalize. I’d assume that because one person was angry with me because I was fat and made stupid comments, there must be others. I’d start looking for the same attitude in my peers.
As night follows day, I found every reason I needed because I was looking for it. When our mind is colored with negativity, anything can look like shunning. A smile can be taken for sarcasm or condescension, and an expressionless face can send a message of disdain. My negative self-image grew as I continued to build negative paintings and theatrical productions in my mind about what everyone else was thinking of me.
That wouldn’t have been so bad, but my mind was busily creating habit pathways that form body language and habits of behavior. The more often my mind returned to the play I had created, the easier it was to replay and embellish the scenes. Soon the pathway became a trench, and a trench is a well-established habit that colors everything. Body language expresses feelings, and people began to respond to body messages.
I thought I was sending the message that people think I’m inferior, but the same body language can be interpreted to mean, “I am standoffish. I don’t like people. Don’t bother me.” Because people didn’t approach me in a friendly manner, what was I going to think? Of course, I concluded, people don’t like me because I’m fat and stupid. The cycle began again, all because someone scowled at me and I decided to make a theatrical production of it.
One evening in prayer, I humbled myself and listened to the Lord’s answer. I was desperate to know what to do. I was depressed and needed answers. The Lord is always good, and He always answers. Even when we think we don’t deserve the answers. I said, “Heavenly Father, I don’t want to be this way. What can I do to change?” His answer came clearly into my mind. “Say 10 things you have done right during the day and never say you are not worth anything again.” I was surprised at the response, but I promised. The first few days were hard because I was climbing out of a trench that was years in the making. I started a new painting and a new script.
I began to create positive scenes that turned into paintings and theatrical productions. If I noticed someone scowling at me, the idea came, “I’ll bet he is mad at me.” I’d stop and redirect the dialogue, “No, I’ll bet he has something going on that I don’t know about. He probably had a bad day.” If I continued to feel the person was angry, I’d approach him and say, “Are you not feeling well today? What’s going on?” If the person was cold and unfeeling, I’d say, “Is there something I did?” The person would respond negatively or positively. It didn’t matter. I had done my part. I didn’t have to assume. I didn’t have to spend the day creating a false narrative. I cleared my mind and let it go.
My mind busily created the body language of a person with confidence and who is open to growth and learning. I found people like to mingle with people who don’t carry negative baggage. They are comfortable to be around and enjoy. I became that kind of person.
Jesus gave us some advice on this subject: “Agree with thine adversary quickly, whiles thou art in the way with him: lest at any time the adversary deliver thee to the judge, and the judge deliver thee to the officer, and thou be cast into prison” (Matthew 5:25 KJV).
I don’t think this scripture is only talking about people who get into legal battles, though this would be good advice for them. He is also warning that there are consequences for letting grievance go on and on, whether they be real or imagined, because our self-image and confidence are built by how we see ourselves reacting to situations. Other people in our lives do not create the way we think about ourselves; we do.
Of course, we often allow others to influence our choices, but we cast the final vote. We choose what we will think about and what theatrical productions we allow to expand in our minds. God gave us the ability to look at our thoughts and direct them. In so doing, He gave us the ability to shape our own self-image which, in turn, shapes our body language, which will eventually influence how people react to us. As Stephen Covey says, “Sow a thought, reap an action; sow an action, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.”
Yevet Crandell Tenney is a Christian columnist who loves American values and traditions. She writes about faith, family and freedom.