It’s Customary: Changing Up the Negative Stories That Are Our Habits

cus·tom. noun: a traditional and widely accepted way of behaving or doing something that is specific to a particular society, place, or time.

When I returned from Costa Rica this past February, I was on one of three flights of vacationers returning to Canada at the same time, shortly after midnight. The customs line-up at Toronto Pearson was long, but they were ready for us. All the kiosks were staffed and the line moved along well. Still, we queued for about 30 minutes.

As I waited, I tuned in to the conversations around me and listened to hundreds of voices. They were all talking about the customs queue.

Sarcastic man: “Welcome to Canada! Please stand in line!”

Impatient woman: “You’d think they’d have this figured out by now!”

Strangers catching each other’s eyes and speaking across lines: “Ain’t this great!” – “Oh yeah, and they’ll probably lose our luggage, too!”

Every one of these people had just spent a week or more in warmth, sunshine, and relaxation. Yet not a single person was talking about the experience they’d had. No one told stories about sloths, whales, beaches, or mojitos.

The flight to Costa Rica had been noisy and relaxed. Strangers engaged in conversation about their destination, families, and hobbies. A mom and baby sat in the seat next to me and every person who walked by our row stopped to smile, coo at, or ask about the child’s name and age.

This return flight was quiet and blanketed with intense energy. Passengers curled into themselves reading books or sleeping. The couple in the row behind me bickered. Everyone looked away from the parents with babies, hoping they wouldn’t be seated near a wailing child.

Humans’ negativity bias is well documented. Negative experiences influence our brains three times more strongly than positive ones. But who decides that a Customs line-up is a negative experience? Who decides that one flight is happier than another?

As I stood in the Customs line, I realized that complaining is a custom and decided that it won’t be my custom any longer. Now when I catch myself complaining or seeing a situation in a negative way, I recognize it for what it is – a mutable habit – and switch my thinking. Depending on the situation, I’ll sometimes suggest a different way of seeing it, or will simply think it to myself.

The results have been consistent. Complaining (engaging in it or simply listening to it) traps me in a cycle of ruminating thoughts. In contrast, when I proactively switch my focus, my mind readily takes a more positive path and gets on with its day.

What’s your custom?

During your day, become aware of the customary complaining around you. Maybe you witness it, maybe you engage in it. It happens in the workplace, on the commute, at the gym, at home, over drinks with friends.

What purpose do these customs of complaint serve in your life?

Try voicing (out loud) a positive perspective on a topic of complaint – what’s the result?

Progressive Tense Cards (5)

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