“You know you’re below the line when it seems serious.” Kathlyn Hendricks, PhD.
I spent two and a half years being mentored by Katie and Gay Hendricks. One of the most life-changing things I heard them say was this (and they said many things that changed my life, my marriage and my career).
So here’s a fun game to play. Decide right now what you’re going to declare to be serious in your life. For the sake of this game, we’ll agree that some things really are serious. Make your list. What is by default serious? Your list might include:
Make the list as long as you need it to be.
Put these items in a mental box labeled “really serious.”
Question: How many of you listed getting a pimple when you were in 7th grade? Or missing a free throw in high school, getting a C on a chemistry exam in college, deciding whether to have chicken or salmon at your wedding reception, deciding whom to invite to your wedding reception and where they should sit, getting the job you wanted right out of college, breaking up with your soulmate when you were 22, getting fired from the accounting firm, losing the bid to a competitor, missing your train, or a thunderstorm that drenched you on your way to work?
On and on and on. We make things serious that aren’t serious (refer back to your really serious box above). When we do we go below the line and become reactive and stressed.
By the way, a good test of what you might want to put in your really serious box is the time and distance test. The time test is this: Will this seem serious to me 5, 10, 50, 1000 years from now? Thus the pimple in 7th grade. But it was so damn serious that Friday night in October in 1968 when I had a party to go to with people I wanted to impress. So check yourself, notice how many things seemed so serious in the moment but don’t now that a little, or a lot, of time has passed. That’s instructive.
Next is the distance test: Would this seem serious to someone who lives 3000 miles away? The fight you got into with your fiance over where Uncle Bill would sit at your reception is not serious to a Parisian street vendor.
So if something fails the time and distance test why do we make it serious?
In my experience, I make things serious when I make them mean something they don’t mean.
The ego wants approval, control and security (see Chapter 11 of The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership). All egos want these three things. We’re constantly on the lookout for any threat to our desire for approval, control and security. What the ego is missing is that at the deepest level of who we are we are always approved of, in control and secure. This is the natural state. This is not a belief but a reality that is discoverable through direct examination and inquiry. But the ego believes we never have enough and that anything and anyone can threaten and take away our approval, control and security.
So in 7th grade I made the pimple mean something it didn’t mean. I made it mean that my approval was being threatened. They won’t like me because I have a zit. We make whether we have salmon or chicken a threat to our desire for control. We make getting fired a threat to our sense of security and we panic and go below the line. Again, this is natural and normal and what all egos do to try to survive.
From the space of time and distance we can see the event and the person differently. They no longer appear as a threat to approval, control and security. They never really were. We just believed the ego.
So what to do? Next time you feel reactive, below the line and stressed, pause, breathe and welcome your current state. Then ask, “What am I making serious right now?” Identify it. Then ask yourself if it will seem serious to you 20 years from now or would is it be serious to the Parisian street vendor? Next, what am I making this mean that it doesn’t mean? (That I’m not approved of, in control or secure?). Welcome the threat that the ego is announcing and then ask down deep—really deep in the calm waters at the center of your being—is this a real threat? Am I OK? Do I have enough approval, control and security right now, right here?
Do this as often as you like and you’ll start to experience that almost nothing is really serious.