I have noted lately that I have to be careful which voice I listen to in my head. Over the last little while (Covid-19 might be to blame), I’ve heard an awful lot from that cantankerous, opinionated person in my head who makes lots of negative pronouncements. For example, I actually found myself thinking the other day, “Why would anybody ever decide to become an actor? Doesn’t that kid/adult know that nobody ever gets anywhere in acting?”
What’s ironic about that voice is that I don’t even feel that way. I believe in the Arts. I believe in following one’s dreams. I am a living testament to someone who started out not getting an English degree because it was impratical (I obviously listened to that negative voice) and then have ended up spending the majority of my adult life making money related to writing, editing and teaching both writing and literature. On top of that, I know several actors here in Los Angeles who have managed to live quite comfortable lives and even buy lovely homes in this expensive part of the world. Those people also happen to be happy and fulfilled as well as hardworking and clear-headed.
So where in the hell is that voice coming from and why is it often the loudest and the first one to jump out with an opinion?
Now, I know I’m not the only person out there who has several voices vying for attention in their head. I know because that alternate profession I initially pursued as a mental health counselor taught me that people often have to actively challenge their negative thoughts in order to live more happily. Dr. Daniel Amen, the physician who does all the brain imaging and who has written numerous books on the subject of brain health, even has coined a term for what that negative voice is. He refers to it as automatic negative thoughts or ANTS. Much like ants can ruin a picnic, he contends that these other kind of ANTS can ruin a good mood, a positive outlook and even send a person into a downward spiral of depression.
Dr. Amen trains people not to automatically believe what that voice says but rather to counter that negative thinking with one that goes more like this. “Well, while it is true that “making it” as an actor is not the easiest thing in the world, there are any number of people who have done it. Besides, there are lots of levels of “making it,” along with plenty of benefits of acting not just on television and on Broadway, but also in community theater. There is merit in doing something simply for the sheer love of it.” That counter-argument pushes Ms. Cranky back down to where she belongs, sitting in her recliner with the tv clicker, too absorbed in a crime series (with actors who have made it) to express any more strong, negative opinions. At least for now.
As Dr. Amen states, “You do not have to believe every thought you have.” These ANTS represent black and white/all or nothing thinking that is simply not true. Life is not black or white. There’s a lot of gray out there and many ways to see situations that typically tempt us to settle for a simple label of good or bad. If you’re questioning the truth in that, then just ask yourself how many times you[ve made yourself unhappy by quashing an idea to do something new just because you’ll never get anywhere with it, it’s impractical, or it’s out of your reach. Then compare that to someone who pushed past those ANTS and actually achieved something that defied the odds. Thomas Edison comes to mind with his 1000 failures before the success of the light bulb. Or even Brad Pitt. Working on Sunset Boulevard wearing a chicken outfit before getting his big break. The point is these are the exceptions that put the kibosh on your cantankerous self who is telling you all sorts of non-truths in a very authoritative voice. “Yes, it’s true most people fail at this or that, but is that true for 100% of the people?” If not, then head back down to that recliner, please.”
So, my job at this point apparently is to be on the alert for Ms. Negative and to send her packing. I’m not even aware much of the time when she sneaks back up and starts complaining, blaming or pointing fingers. I just know I feel bad. Then I actually hear one of those thoughts as it circles in my brain and I think, “What the heck! Get back down to where you belong. That’s not how I feel at all.”
It sounds crazy but it’s the truth and understanding that I can banish negativity has made a big difference in my life overall. When I actively listen to those negative thoughts and ask myself, “Is that really true? Is that really how I feel?” I find that more often than not, the answer is no. I have just gotten tired or angry or frustrated or overwhelmed and I automatically welcome those ANTS to come in and ruin my party.
So, if you ever see me out after COVID-19 is over and hear me mutter, “Get back down where you belong,” then you’ll know I’m actively making an effort to focus on the positive and you can safely give me a big smile.